Today we’re pleased to share Part Two of our Q&A with Daniel S. Pierce, author of Tar Heel Lightnin’: How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World. Check out Part One here.
From the late nineteenth century well into the 1960s, North Carolina boasted some of the nation’s most restrictive laws on alcohol production and sale. For much of this era, it was also the nation’s leading producer of bootleg liquor. Over the years, written accounts, popular songs, and Hollywood movies have turned the state’s moonshiners, fast cars, and frustrated Feds into legends. But in Tar Heel Lightnin’, Daniel S. Pierce tells the real history of moonshine in North Carolina as never before. This well-illustrated, entertaining book introduces a surprisingly varied cast of characters who operated secret stills and ran liquor from the swamps of the Tidewater to Piedmont forests and mountain coves.
Tar Heel Lightnin’ is now available in print and ebook editions.
Q: Tar Heel Lightnin’ is packed with fascinating sidebars profiling your candidates for a strictly hypothetical “North Carolina Moonshine Hall of Fame (and Shame).” How did you choose the members for this list?
A: Some were easy choices, like Junior Johnson or Popcorn Sutton, and anyone who was profiled in a national publication or media outlet qualified. Others, like Amos Owens or Alvin Sawyer, were/are well known in the state. I did want the Hall of Fame to reflect both the geographic and demographic spread of moonshiners, however, so that meant some of the folks would not be that well known. Few people have recognized how important women, African Americans, and Native Americans were in the illegal liquor business and most of those folks operated in relative obscurity. They just did not fit the stereotype that the press wanted. Given that, I chose some folks, such as Rhoda Lowry and Howard “Reno” Creech, as exemplars of large groups of people. And while they don’t have the big reputations of the Juniors and Popcorns, they are just as important to the story.
Q: Were there any other criteria?
A: I included those individuals who had significant regional, national, and even international reputations. “King of the Moonshiners” Lewis Redmond was profiled in the New York Times and was the subject of two dime novels, a play, several documentaries, and numerous books; Percy Flowers was profiled in the Saturday Evening Post; Tom Wolfe wrote a famous article on Junior Johnson in Esquire; Quill Rose was featured in a couple of books that were nationally distributed including Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders; Jerry Rushing served as the model for Bo Duke of the Dukes of Hazzard; and Popcorn Sutton and Jim Tom Hedrick have been constants on national cable TV over the last several years.
Others were well known within the state, at least for a short period. Betty Sims received a good bit of notoriety in her day, particularly in the Charlotte Observer; Amos Owens was so well known in North Carolina that some folks sold thousands of “Amos Owens cherry trees” across the state; Alvin Sawyer was profiled in Our State magazine and numerous newspapers; and the Burgess brothers were well known in the state due to their highly publicized trials and their involvement in NASCAR as track owners. Other folks made it into the Hall of Fame as exemplars of important groups involved in the moonshine business, often under-represented in the literature. Rhoda Lowry, Howard Creech, and Ada Thompson aren’t very well known, but well represent the roles women, African Americans, and Native Americans played in making the state the “moonshine capital of the world.”
Q: Did you include any unsung heroes of moonshine?
A: Lowry, Creech, and Thompson definitely qualify in the “unsung hero” category. Lowry, a widow, represents the thousands of women in the state without male providers who sold illegal liquor to keep body and soul together when there was no government social welfare safety net. Creech represents the thousands of African Americans who were highly skilled distillers and took most of the risks but labored in a share-cropping type relationship with white moonshiners like Percy Flowers who reaped most of the benefits from the enterprise. Thompson represents women and African Americans who creatively took advantage of opportunities to supplement their meager incomes. Thompson’s home was not only a place where you could get a shot of moonshine, but you could get a delicious meal and even play the numbers.
Q: Where does the “(and Shame)” part come into play?
A: I included the “(and Shame)” part because some of these people did things that were pretty despicable. Of course, all were guilty of criminal behavior as moonshiners and most of the Hall of Fame members spent time in jail or prison. Several killed or wounded people and violently intimidated anyone who threatened their operations. Several were blatant racists and both Amos Owens and Percy Flowers had significant connections to the Ku Klux Klan. Owens went to prison for his Klan activities.
Q: Why might such an institution as a Hall of Fame be needed?
A: I’ve always been bothered by the state’s fascination with the Wright brothers. Obviously they are important, but what the heck did their accomplishments have to do with North Carolina? It’s especially irritating since North Carolina has produced large numbers of individuals who have world-class accomplishments in different fields such as basketball, stock car racing, music, and cooking barbecue. While these folks are generally honored in various halls of fame and museums, North Carolina has produced more world-class moonshiners than perhaps any other state or country and there’s no place where they’ve received proper recognition. It’s time we rectified this situation.
Q: If there were an opportunity for a specialized North Carolina license plate celebrating moonshine, what might the featured design be?
A: I actually worked with a friend on a license plate design as possible cover art for the book, but it just didn’t work out. That said, the plate I envisioned has “First in Moonshine” across the top instead of “First in Flight” or “First in Freedom.” It should also have an image of a still on it and all numbers should start with XXX.
Q: Ideally, where might the “North Carolina Moonshine Hall of Fame (and Shame)” be located, and what artifacts/objects might it contain?
A: There would be a lot of competition for such a Hall of Fame in North Carolina. Wilkes County would be an obvious choice, but Johnston County, Burke County (the South Mountains), Pasquotank (Dismal Swamp), Dare (Alligator Swamp), and Robeson (Lumber River) all could present sound qualifications. Having it located next to the Andy Griffith Museum in Mt. Airy would be a nice touch and, given the amount of moonshine consumed by our state legislature, downtown Raleigh would be appropriate.
The museum could feature the wide variety of stills used in the state that would illustrate the evolution of the business. Vehicles used in hauling liquor would also reveal much about moonshining in the state, especially those high-powered cars used in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Paraphernalia used by law enforcement should also be included like the “devil” used to poke holes in busted stills. Displays of various recipes used in the state would also help tell the story as well as the wide variety of containers.
Q: Would there be a Hall of Fame shop for to visit on the way out? What might be stocked there?
A: Marketing souvenirs would also be easy at such a museum. Miniature stills would be a big hit (especially if they actually work). Ingredients for making moonshine (perfectly legal to sell) would probably sell well. The usual T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and other do-dads featuring famous moonshiners would also appeal to visitors. And of course, there should be books in the gift shop and there are a number of good ones on moonshine, especially the one entitled Tarheel Lightnin’.
Daniel S. Pierce is professor of history at the University of North Carolina Asheville. His previous books include Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France.