Vol. VI, No. 4, Spring 1993


THERE ARE STILL PLACES

by Gwendolyn Eisenmann



The American southern mountain tradition of making illegal whiskey has long traditional precedents, in Irish poteen for one. What is it about making "spirits" that causes people to resist, to seek hidden places to make it, to risk imprisonment in doing so ? Perhaps part of the answer is purely practical, as the Wayman Hogue excerpt shows. But part of the answer is surely that there is romance in resistance itself, resistance that drives us into hidden places, resistance whose spirit lingers, tangibly in those still corners of the world...and our minds.

Where thoughts too loud are softened by a mix of sun and shadow, diminished by trees, moved and mirrored by streams, there are still places to remember. Starting at the head of a "holler" where a sheer drop is undercut by a shallow cave, water drips into a pool below and trickles down steep rock steps past maidenhair fern. The only sound is the water.

From the pool there is nowhere to go but down. The stillness is filled with curiosity and forest mystery. Is it woods creatures watching, or ghosts that compel us to look behind? The stream runs on down to where it swells with water from a small branch rivulet, then to a mossy shelf where it widens before it drops again.

Beside the mossy shelf there is a little rock platform obviously built by human hands. It is a good place to sit and listen, opposite another little stream that leads the eye down a bank across the narrow ravine. The handmade seat makes one wonder, in the stillness, who built it.

Because, of course, it is the site of an old whiskey still. "Moonshine" whiskey it is called, at least in cartoons and stories. One can well imagine moonlight in such a site, in still places where "spirits" gather.

Is there romance in the story of an illicit corn whiskey still? In deepest solitude, in a struggle for survival, in beautiful glens with hidden springs, moonshine was brewed. What were the visions of those who boiled their brew in such a place?

Our neighbor who was a young man when whiskey was being made in these hills, still greets us with the query "Want a drink of whiskey?"--the sociable greeting in those days, in these hills. The bottle he offers is store bought, but it still says, "Howdy. You sample mine, I'll sample yours, or we'll share if someone's batch didn't make it."

On this rock platform beside the stream, nothing is left but the rocks; no barrel, no coil, no jug. But a search led to the real thing, all copper, in an antique shop. At an auction not too long ago the auctioneer asked for bids on a copper pail with a copper funnel. He had not recognized the funnel as an upside-down cap for a still, with a spout that attached to a coil, or "worm." But two bidders recognized it, and the proprietor of the shop felt both guilty and triumphant to get both pieces for $50. Guilty because what would her husband think of her spending so much?

An Arkansas still raided by the Feds. Photo courtesy Russel Gerlach.

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Knowing what she had, she looked around for the copper coil and found it in a shed at the auction site among some other things lumped together to be sold as a package. Pail, funnel and coil were put into her car trunk and left there until they could be taken into the house without her husband knowing. Hidden in the holler, hidden in the house, still hidden.

After dinner that evening her husband said, "Well, why not open the car trunk and show me what you bought this time?" She did, and when he saw it he exclaimed, "There must be $120 worth of copper here!" When he heard what the price had been, he bragged to an acquaintance who promptly offered double the amount the copper was worth. No sale!

The still was shined up and assembled in the shop window. The only trouble was that the old timers in town wouldn't tell the proper way to assemble it.

But one day a retired preacher was passing by. He noticed the still, came into the shop and said, "Mary, you didn't do this right." He did it right, and told about having his own still in the woods long ago because that was the only way he could feed his family. Mary's still gathered glory, no longer hidden.

I sat on the rock shelf in the woods and thought about these things and these people. I could imagine the sound of the thumper, the second boiling, and see moonlight streaming through the trees, glinting on the stream. I could see dim figures in the mist tending boiler and jugs. I thought of the gardens, the excess corn crop, the liquor tax, and I wondered what the password was for Sugartree Hollow.

Far off somewhere was the sound of traffic, and garish city lights instead of moonlight. But here in the Ozark hills there are still places where flowers and ferns grow along streambanks that bear the imprint of another time. There may be ghosts who miss the familiar copper coil and boiler in the old place. But ghosts by moonlight will catch the shine of the copper in the shop window, recognize it, and linger awhile to enjoy the moonshine. There are still places to remember ....



A Recipe for Corn Spirits

Ms. Eisenmann provides the following recipe for corn whiskey, in the moonshiner's own terms, which clearly reveal his pride in both his product and his spirit.

RECIPE from Art Patterson who made whiskey for the government at a demonstration still at Alley Spring, Missouri. ("We've just decided we can hire you cheaper'n we can hire two revenue men to be after you all the time!" he claims he was told.)

"To make corn whiskey you need fifty pounds of corn chops, fifty pounds of sugar, and one package of yeast. You put this in a fifty-five gallon wooden white oak barrel with forty gallons of water.

"You don't use much yeast, just a little bit to start it. That's just to rush up the process more. Now when it's right hot weather you really don't have to use the yeast. It'll go ahead and make without it. But when it's cool you need the yeast to start it fermenting; then your grain and sugar'll pick it up. It'll work about three days, working that grain to the top while it's fermenting. When it gets all the alcyhol worked out of your sugar and grain, it'll quit working and the grain will go to the bottom. Then it's ready to run through the still.

"You just dip the water often your grain and you pour it in the cooker. You seal the top of the lid up there tight so you won't lose none of the steam. You seal it with dough --just flour and water --smear it around there and then, as the cooker heats up, it cooks that dough. Then if you get fight drunk and need something to eat, why, you can jerk yourself off a piece of that dough and eat it.

"Whiskey is the steam off the water in the cooker. The alcyhol is in the water-- worked out of your grain and sugar. What you've got to do is put that in your still and make your alcyhol boil at a lower temperature than your water....You build a fire under the cooker and keep it just fight. If you let it get too much fire and go to boiling, your whiskey would look like muddy water....Now when it heats up right, the alcyhol comes out of your water. It comes to the top as steam. The steam then goes down a copper tubing that is thirty-five feet long, wound inside the barrel. That copper tube is called the worm. We keep cool water running over the worm so that, as your steam comes down through it, cold water condenses your steam back into liquid and that is your whiskey. Mine is 120 proof."

Gwendolyn Eisermann moved from Ohio 17 years ago to live in the forest and to garden, explore and write. "There Are Still Places" was a 1990 Ozarks Writers League Dan Saults Award winner.
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