Moonshine, though often associated with Appalachia, is also an integral part of the Ozarks culture.
Growing up in the hills of Newton County, Arkansas, I lived a privileged life. I got to know a good amount of my ancestors, and hear their stories and experiences. Though most of them were straight laced, hard-working and proud folks, I would occasionally hear the whispered word about something illicit, something that was forbidden and frowned upon, something that permeated the culture that I lived in. That thing was moonshine whiskey.
Growing up in the hills of Newton County, Arkansas, there were legends.
Many of them took the form of people, some of who I knew well, others passed long before my time. Sometimes the legends took the place of a certain event, like a brawl or murder or some other happening that captured not only the imaginations of those around, but the memory of all those close by.
But in all those legends, one stands out amongst the others; moonshine whiskey.
Now, let me be the first to say that there are few other subjects that draw such a wide range of emotion from folks that hear the subject brought forth. I have seen happiness and disgust, pride and shame and grins and tears. There are few subjects that make such a profound impact upon our culture.
Growing up in what I consider the ‘post whiskey’ era, I still was privileged to know many who participated in the aforementioned trade.
In my own life I was privileged to know many of the older generations, since I was born in late 1987. Still, though many of the purveyors of the trade were long gone, they were still spoken of in whispered tones.
‘Whiskey men’ is how my great uncle and grandfather referred to them. There were several, many of them local folks who were well known. Most of them involved their own families in the trade of illicit liquor, but some who remained nearly anonymous even years after their own deaths.
Such was the secrecy of the trade. My own grandfather spoke openly to us about his father’s wish that none of his own kids would ‘make whiskey’ though he made it himself. He refused to teach any of his sons, and his trade died with him.
My 2nd great grandfather, George Washington Freeman, was a whiskey man that taught his own sons the trade. He always said that a man would get caught if he made it look like he was ‘makin whiskey.’ So his cover was that he worked in the fields all day and then made whiskey at night (we still don’t know when he slept). George’s saving grace was that he had his still in a remote cave on his property, that was underground and had a cold, clear spring running in it. More of a ‘crack in the bluff.’ He had to break down his kegs and feed them through the opening and then re-assemble them on the other side, once he had his whiskey made. He used this trade to feed his own family through hard times, as many others did.
The whole concept of the ‘rich moonshiner’ is quite ponderous to those of us that have known them and understood the way that they have lived. Some folks get the idea that some hillbilly with a great corn crop suddenly distills it and stuffs the excess from the sale under his mattress.
The truth is far from that.
The average whiskey man in the Ozarks gets his recipe handed down through the generations, and practiced it as an art, a craft to be mastered, from his forebears. He did it, initially, not to turn a profit, but to provide him with liquor for medicinal (and, admittedly) other uses. This was the foundation of the Ozark ‘moonshiner.’
Some whiskey men learned that their own recipe or method was superior to others. Time evolved the making of ‘wildcat’ (as most of my forebears would never call it ‘moonshine’) to a near perfection through trial and error. A good recipe is crucial, yes, but what if a man changed ‘this or that’ and then tried it? The results were sometimes amazing.
The Ozarks were, and are, a poor country, by most all standards. The folks that settled here were hard working, superstitious, clannish and (most of all) proud people. The hills and hollers they settled and farmed often belong to their offspring today, thankfully.
Wildcat was always in the hills, but the idea of it being more than a bartering agent didn’t come along ‘til around the Great Depression and prohibition.
When a man has a wife and several children to feed, the legality of how he comes by a dollar starts to mean less. Not that I’m saying that my bunch, (and many others) were criminals born, nor that they took such things lightly; they simply had a skill passed to them that could prove profitable. In fact, most of the whiskey men I was acquainted with only took to the craft to support and feed their families. It wasn’t a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, but a ‘keep the kids fed’ scheme.
So many with a small understanding of the big picture seem to overlook this; not that I’m making excuses for the whiskey men, some of them did plenty of evil in their time, say, Yates ‘Wolfman’ Standridge. But there were plenty who did nothing but mind their stills and use the money to (literally) buy their children shoes.
This is a small essay on wildcat, and it, like anything short of a multi-volume work, cannot truly explain the making nor the importance of ‘moonshine’ whiskey to our culture.
Fact of it is, even though it is oft associated with Appalachia, our ancestors brought it with them when they settled the wilds of the Ozarks, and moonshine whiskey is as much a part of our culture as it is theirs. It has been involved in love and war; feuds and reconciliations; marriages and burials; all the aspects of our ancestor’s lives have been touched in it, in a way.
Wildcat is a part of our heritage. It’s hard to write an objective piece on something that has brought so much heartache, but it has also brought much joy and good.
Good or bad, it is a part of our heritage and our people.
I’ll close this short piece with a story of my own people;
During the 1960s in the poor, backwoods of Newton County, my grandfather and his cousin were once saddled with driving 50 gallons of wildcat to a buyer. They rolled along the quiet, dark night in a ’55 Ford. They were both teenagers, and jumpy about being placed behind the wheel, but they knew that the success of this trip meant money for the family. The driver asked my grandfather ‘Meckey, what if we get caught?’ Papa fished around and found a tire iron and brandished it and announced ‘If we get pulled over, I’ll break every jar in here!’ His cohort thought about it a minute and said ‘Hell, Meckey! That’d drown us!!’