Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991


Old-timers recall days when hills were flowing with...

moonshine

By Andy Ostmeyer



This article appeared in The Joplin Globe, September 29, 1991. OzarksWatch is grateful to The Globe and Globe staff writer Ostmeyer for permission to publish a somewhat condensed version of the original story.

CASSVILLE, MO.--Dry Hollow begins its journey near the Old Washburn Prairie and plows eastward toward Roaring River State Park [Barry County, Missouri]. Forty years ago, it was thick with trees, thin with people, and steep.

And 40 years ago this fall, a thump, thump, thump ricocheted off the bluffs and pounded through the trees. That was Dry Hollow Slim, who found this a profitable place for doing business in 1951 and 1952. Dry Hollow Slim was a moonshiner.

Moonshine has long been a part of Ozark history and folklore, says Bob Flanders, history professor at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and director of the Center for Ozarks Studies.

"It's a folk craft and a folk tradition that was very strong among the people of Scotch-Irish descent. The making of whiskey, a well-honed craft in the old country, exploded here," he says, largely because the land of milk and honey also was a land of corn. That explosion reached its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, when Prohibition and the Depression fueled the fire under many a still. "It was a heritage that was passed on from generation to generation," says Slim's son, himself a former moonshiner.

But somewhere along the way, the heritage got lost. Slim's own family illustrates what happened: His son learned to make moonshine in 1951 and 1952, but he never passed the skill to his own children. "Lifestyles change,, says the 59-year-old retired Monett businessmen. He did not want his name used, he says, because some skeletons are better off buried.

Dry Hollow Slim died in 1979. "Another 10 years and it will all be over with," says Lou Keeling, McDonald County Sheriff.

But 50, 60 and 70 years ago it was a different matter. Stills were so common it was said all one had to do to find one was march up any spring branch and poke around for a while.

Keep the smoke down

It's been four decades since Slim's son stoked up a fire beneath the still, or drained the mash barrels. But he hasn't forgotten how.

Because Dry Hollow is dry--there is no year-round stream at the bottom--water had to piped from a nearby spring to the 72 55-gallon mash barrels. The barrels were stuffed with corn chops, sugar, yeast and malt. The latter ingredients were provided by an Arkansas bakery, he says, that received moonshine in return.

"You had to have an inside on everything. In the winter, you couldn't buy 1,000 pounds of sugar without somebody getting suspicious. The grain we could buy all right because we had hogs and cattle."

Dry Hollow Slim and his crew let the sugar and yeast work their mash for three days. Afterward, the fermented mash was siphoned from three of the barrels into a 250-gallon propane tank. It was larger and more effective than the traditional handmade copper still, but worked just as well for steaming the mash.

"There was one thing about this country," he says, "you had to keep the smoke down. If you had a billow of smoke going up in the area that would make people inquisitive. I would use real dry wood."

An opening in the top of the still was covered by a wooden whiskey barrel called the thump keg and sealed with bread dough. When the fire was going full force, pressure inside the still created a deep, muffled thump that could be heard hundreds of yards away.

"The thump keg is kind of like an amplifier," says Slim's son. "It's got a muffled sound--like thunder a long way off---every eight to ten seconds."

An insulated doubling barrel removed the final impurities. At the other end of the operation was a condenser--often a coiled copper pipe called a worm in the hill vernacular. The end result was a steady stream the size of a pencil.

"It kept one man busy just changing jugs," he says.

To lessen the risk of getting caught, the bootlegger they hired to take it to Tulsa, Oklahoma was one who knew both sides of the road, so to speak. "It was kind of ironic," the son says. "He was retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He knew how to distribute it and such as that."

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This photo of a still in McDonald County was taken by Folklorist Vance Randolph in 1930. Photo Courtesy Lyons Memorial Library, College of the Ozarks.
"And he knew where some easy money was at."

Pick a house

A.C. Holman is 82 years old now, and retired. But 60 years ago, during the heat of Prohibition his father, Bill Holman was sheriff. A.C. accompanied him on many of his raids.

During Prohibition, moonshine was so popular in the Ozarks, Holman says, that at one point a local man offered $10 to anyone to pick a house between Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and Gateway, Arkansas where it wasn't for sale.

No one would take the bet, he says. "You could stop at pert' near any house and buy it."

There's no telling how much illegal liquor flowed, but by one estimate those pencil-thin streams swelled to a river of moonshine.

The now defunct Licensed Beverage Industries, Inc., which represented legal distillers, said that between 1950 and 1969, one billion gallons of moonshine were produced nationwide. Most of it was produced in the moonshine belt, a strip of Southern states led by Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas and Tennessee.

The distillers' group said the best barometer of illegal activity over the years was the number of stills confiscated by federal agents. In 1932, the year before Prohibition dried up, still seizures reached a peak of 23,165, says Les Stanford, spokesman for the

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

By 1950, federal seizures fell to 10,000 nationwide, and by 1970 to 5,000. Ten years later it hit 106, and in 1985, eight. In 1988 it hit zero. Stanford believes it was a first for the bureau.

$12 a gallon

"Good whiskey as a rule sold for $1.50 a pint," says Charlie Priest, a Barry County deputy sheriff during Prohibition. He worked for sheriff Holman for four years.

That's $12 a gallon, and therein lies the reason that moonshine flowed like a river. Corn was worth more by the gallon than the bushel, these men say, and making it had as much to do with the Depression as Prohibition.

Flanders, the history professor at SMSU, says a lot more moonshine was made for personal use than for sale in the Ozarks, but whatever it was for, moonshiners continued making it long after Prohibition ended.

In fact, in the 40 years that followed Prohibition, 6,000 stills were seized by federal agents in Arkansas and Missouri.

"That's the only way they had of making any money," Holman says.

Slim's son says that each gallon brought $12, of which $8 was profit. "One gallon of whiskey would have been worth two days' work, and I'm talking 10-hours-a-day work."

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And one run, he says, would produce 20 gallons of whiskey.

"It was a supplement to our income."

Friendly with local law

The relationship moonshiners had with the law could be as different as moonshine and white lightning --which, according to folklore, was the difference between night and day. (Moonshine, according to Ozark folklore, was made at night; white lightning was made in the day; and white mule was the stuff that was made so far back in the hills it took a mule to haul it out.)

Moonshiners were usually on friendly terms with the sheriff, say Holman and Priest. Even those who got caught never held a grudge. "The way it was," says Holman, "it was kind of like playing poker. They'd say, 'I lost this hand.'"

But to the federal agents, moonshine was not a game.

"Your average moonshiner, in our judgment, is not a nice guy back in the hills," Stanford says, "but somebody who wants to evade the law."

Between 1920 and 1983, he says, 196 agents were killed in the line of duty. "The majority of that was in the 20s and 30s."

Bustin' stills at the local level also could be dangerous, says Holman, pointing to his side, where he says he was once hit with a shotgun blast. He recovered, but says he still carries some of the lead pellets below the skin. Despite such dangers, moonshiners often saw the sheriff as a neighbor, Holman says, unlike the federal agents, who were seen as outsiders.

"They knowed us," Holman says. "They didn't know them. They would come in here and buy it and then double-cross them. They more or less worked that way to get in with them. We couldn't work on it that way because they knowed us."

The sheriff, he says, usually learned of stills by word of mouth.

"Another bootlegger or another moonshiner would tell on his competition. People thought it was good people turning them in. It wasn't. It was other moonshiners."

Forgotten craft

Moonshine may well be the stepchild of Ozark crafts today.

Visitors at Silver Dollar City can see soap and candle making, apple-butter making and more. But there is no still.

"They see all the forgotten crafts," says Rosemary Noland, spokesperson for Silver Dollar City, "but they won't see moonshine."

At the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, visitors can watch a mill grind corn, but they can no longer watch a still turn it into moonshine. The still that was once part of the park's cultural display was taken down because it gave people the wrong impression of the Ozarks, says Alex Outlaw, park ranger. "It sort of perpetuates the Lil' Abner type of culture."

And at the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View, Arkansas, visitors get a taste of life from 1820 to 1920, but no taste of moonshine.

There was a still for a short time, says Kay Thomas, the crafts director at the park, but the state agency that lent it to them eventually took it back.

Despite the fact that the generation of moonshiners is passing away, and despite the fact that there is not effort made to preserve the skill, no one will say that the thumping--the heartbeat of the moonshiners--has stopped entirely.

"The majority of it is probably made just for the novelty," says Marshall Spencer, district supervisor for the Missouri division of Liquor Control in Springfield. "As far as making it for profit, those days are gone."

"It's not feasible to make it with the price of grain and the price of sugar," adds Slim's son.

In Missouri, making moonshine without a $200 permit is a felony, even if it's just for personal use.

It has been years since the Missouri liquor control division or Arkansas Beverage Control division has raided an Ozark still.

"I can't remember when we had the last complaint up and through there," says Jack Boles, director of enforcement for the ABC. Making moonshine in Arkansas also is a felony.

The last time a still was taken from Barry or McDonald County was 1976, when authorities found a Powell man making it "hillbilly style," they said. Vernon Still, Barry County sheriff at the time, learned about it when the man started buying hundreds of pounds of sugar. "You don't buy 300,400, 500 pounds of sugar just to can huckleberries," Still says.

Like other officers, Boles doesn't believe the last moonshiner has quit--but he believes development has elminated much of the cover they once needed.

"As development moves in, naturally the secrecy of it is just gone."

"If there is a lost art in the Ozarks, it's probably making decent moonshine whiskey," Boles says.

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