When I talk about where and how I grew up, folks, even a bit older than me, assume that not only am I from another state, they imagine I must be from another century.

Case in point.

My home county is dry. I don’t mean that we get little rain, I mean that we have no legal alcohol. This is still the case in several States in the Deep South where the Baptists guard the ballot box against such devilments as gambling, liquor and infrastructure.

Since our county has more Baptists than people, it is as dry as cracker juice. And you can’t imagine the shape these old roads are in. I once tried telling some local pastors that a “Sin Tax” from alcohol revenue could go a long way toward filling in those potholes, but they maintained that the Straight and Narrow was rough by design. I suppose this is to discourage traffic. But I digress.

In other times, our people got around the Blue Laws the old-fashioned way. That is, by ignoring them. Folks just made their own hooch. My great grandmother, for instance, earned what little money she ever had by trading coon pelts, beaver hides, tomato relish, and corn liquor. And she’d grin big as she declared, “Ain’t one soul never went blind from my mash neither.”

By the time I came along, few local stills were in operation. Everyone now looked to another kind of civil servant–the Bootlegger.

I reckon I was 12 or 13 the first time I made a trip to the Bootlegger’s house. “You gone need a paper sack, boy,” Papa said. “Brother Leon ain’t gonna’ sell you nothin’ if’n you don’t have a poke to hide it in.”

Papa wasn’t too peculiar about what kind of liquor I picked up, as long as it was at least a pint of bonded liquor. He never wanted a half pint. “I don’t aim to just get half drunk,” he’d say.

And it had to be bonded liquor, or “bought liquor.” Taxed booze. He once had a bad experience on homemade whiskey, something to do with the neighbor lady that ended with her making threats with garden shears. I don’t rightly know. He didn’t like to talk about it.

So I rustled around under the cabinet and found a little grocery bag and headed the mile and a half to the backside of Carter Cemetery Road. I made pretty good time down that old red dirt road since I wasn’t too keen on the idea of having to pass the graveyard past dusk or after.

Leon Carter, “Brother Leon,” as he was known, was once a Pentecostal preacher. He was also once a deputy sheriff and once reasonably sane. But three churches, two ex wives, and one stray bullet brought on the conditions that necessitated this new occupation. “Brother Leon might still talk in tongues, but he does his cussin’ in English,” Papa said. “But don’t worry. He’s harmless.”

When I turned up Brother Leon’s driveway I remember thinking that the old yellow house was nice for our area. It stood on a foundation and everything. Most homes in our area were either perched on axles, or were built two feet off the ground and had half a dozen hounds living underneath.

But these shutters were new. The yard was freshly mown. And there were even azaleas planted around the porch. It reminded me of Mrs. Whitmore’s house, the president of the garden club up town. It did not look like a den of criminal mischief and vice. Which made sense the longer I thought about it.

I stepped up on the porch to knock on the screen door. But before I could get my fist balled up, a loud, ragged voice shouted at me from inside the house.

“Watchu want, boy?” the voice thundered.

“I’m here to buy some liquor.”

“Say what? They ain’t no liquor here.”

“Aintchu Brother Leon Carter? Aintchu the bootlegger? Papa sa…”

And before I could finish making inquiries, the screen door flung open and a large hand dragged me inside the house by the back of my OshKosh B’gosh overhauls.

“You must ain’t got no damn sense atall,” he thundered. “Out there broadcasting my business on the front porch in front of God and everybody.”

“Well, are you Brother Leon?”

“I am. What business is it of yours?”

“I need a pint of bonded whiskey.”

The erstwhile tent preacher choked out a hoarse laugh thickened by age and Lucky Strikes,

“You’s just a boy. What do you need whiskey fur?”

That’s when I learned how bootleggers go about checking a fella’s ID. He squinted his eyes at me and kind of cocked his head to one side as he spoke from the corner of his mouth,

“Whose boy are you? Who’s your people?” And he held me in his stare for a while.

I told him by Papa’s name and he slapped his knees and laughed again.

“I reckon you’ll be wanton’ a pint of whatever’s cheap then,” he said.

“Yessir. A whole pint. Bonded liquor.”

“You got a sack to put it in?”

“Yessir, got one from the Piggly Wiggly. Will that do?”

“That’s fine. That’ll be ten dollars.”

I gave him the ten dollar bill I had wadded up in my pocket and headed out the door with my contraband.

“Why don’t you come see us at church on Sunday?” said Brother Leon.

“Now, you know we’s Baptist. But I might. Papa says yall waller all over the floor and stuff. I might come watch.”

“You do that. And tell your folks we’re a’prayin’ for em.”

Such was my first encounter with the Bootlegger.

Brandon Meeks

Brandon Meeks is an Arkansas native. He received his PhD. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He serves his local parish as Theologian-in-Residence. He is also a fan of Alabama football, old folks, and bacon grease.


  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    And he held me in his stare for a while.

    The people you mention in the opening sentence…they don’t realize what they missed. We were blessed to have lived it.

    Thanks again.

  • Silver Beard says:

    I’m 70 and grew up in a “dry county” in Arkansas. We had several bootleg joints I learned about in high school. I went to the ones run by Blacks as they were more likely to sell to a white high school boy. One place had a large dirt parking lot that was empty during the week but packed on weekends. The room entered from the back of the house was a larger empty room with a jukebox at one end. The counter was empty as the person would go into the back to get what you asked for. This one was on a dirt road out of town. While hunting in the mountains I also came too close to someone cooking moonshine and was shoot at with buckshot. It was deer season but the shots came from the game preserve side of the river where no one hunted but small streams of smoke could be seen when there was fog on the river. I sent a couple of rounds from my dad’s Winchester 94 toward the top of a pine tree up the mountain and the guy yelled at me not to shoot anymore. He didn’t ID himself as a hunter. I agreed to a cease-fire and then crawled off through the brush. When I told my dad the events he said it was likely a moonshiner working in an area he didn’t expect to be disturbed or located. It was deep in the woods in the game preserve and across the river on my side was 4 miles at least to a road. I left Arkansas for grad school but returned 45 years ago and have remained since. Those were interesting times in rural (which was most of the state) Arkansas then. I still deer hunt but have not had such an experience since. I’ll have to say that moonshiner was taking a chance since there was a cougar that lived back there and that game preserve is one Game and Fish stocked with black bear in the 1960s. It was also known for its rattlesnakes. I grew up in that area so by age 15 it was OK for me to roam knowing what to watch for. We often had rattlesnakes and bobcats in the backyard and more rarely a cougar or bear. I have to admit that I miss it and wish I could have raised my sons more like I was raised.


    When I was growing up some decades ago, there were still bootleggers operating in my part of Alabama, but I never actually encountered one. I was underprivileged that way. I do recall hearing about the revenuers catching one on at least one occasion. For whatever reason, I was rooting for the bootlegger, who on that occasion at least had mistaken the lawman for a genuine customer. Anyway, thanks for the memories I unfortunately never had.

  • Bob Kennedy says:

    Back in the 60s my father worked for the U.S. Labor Department setting up training programs in Western N.C. Initially, he was assigned a motor pool car that was clearly marked U.S. government. I remember him telling to story that he stopped at a general store to ask directions of a furniture manufacturing plant in the area where he was helping set up jobs programs. The folks there said they’d never heard of the place, but after leaving the store he found the rather large manufacturing plant a mile or so away. He quickly realized those local folks saw his motor pool car and figured he was a revenuer looking for bootleggers in the area. After that encounter he took he traded the motor pool car for a vehicle allowance and used our personal car for business travel. No issues with getting directions ever occurred again in the future. (;>)

  • Louis Burge says:

    My grandfather taught me to drive when I was about ten years old. One day I asked him when he got his first car. “When I was twelve”, he said. “How did you afford it?”, I asked. “Always had a little something under the back seat.”, he said.

    My grandmother told him to be quiet.

  • Johnny G. says:

    I know 2 guys who were hiking near Saluda, NC and found an active still with the fire burning but no one around. One of them took out his phone to get a picture, and the other guy stopped him, saying that there was probably a gun pointed at them from the woods. So they got out of there fast. This was in 2020.

  • You’ve got a knack for writin’ Pastor Meeks. You bring back memories of empty gallon jugs along pine trails near my house and a mile or so from Whiskey Creek where I still live. And famous NC moonshiners like Popcorn Sutton and Atlas Brewer, the meanest man in Green Pond.

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