a moonshine still in Knox County,
Tennessee, in 1936.
Hear the segment on moonshine that aired on KWBU-FM:
Original Airdates: September 21, 22, 24 (2010)
This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
White lightning, hooch, mountain dew, firewater—all names for moonshine, or distilled spirits made in an unlicensed still. Although moonshine is most often associated with Prohibition in the U.S., the practice as we know it began shortly after the formation of the country, when people were attempting to avoid the new federal tax on alcohol.
CBF missionary Earl Martin recalls his encounter with a moonshine still in the late forties, when he was teaching in eastern Tennessee:
"I was traipsing in the mountain trails in an area that wasn't too well-known to me, and I suddenly came on a moonshine still. And it was—it was—the fire was going, and it was smoking. But I didn't see anybody because they heard a stranger coming, and I suddenly realized the danger of the situation because to discover a moonshine still back in those years—and since I was from Washington, DC, I could have been perceived as a federal agent—"
Interviewer: "As a G-man."
"—even though I was a young man. So I moved quickly out of there, suffice—(laughter) I never did see anybody, but I wondered if somebody had their shotgun trained at me."
Avery Downing, former superintendent of Waco ISD, describes the prevalence of moonshine in East Texas during Prohibition:
"It was available. Everybody knew it and knew some of the places to go to get moonshine whiskey. Now, I never knew where any of those so-called stills were, but that doesn't mean that some of those wooded areas, which were extensive—I remember a place called Scott's Farm. Scott's Farm included many, many square miles of uncultivated, wooded area, and I'm sure that there must have been stills operated in such a place as that."
Once experienced, moonshine was difficult to forget:
"I remember how it—what the stuff looked like. I remember how it tasted. It was just almost like kerosene. It was white and extremely powerful to the taste buds and, I'm sure, other ways, too."
Downing explains the dark side of moonshine:
"The horror of the bootleg world is that somebody would get ahold of some bad liquor and come up with the jake leg. There were people accused of having the jake leg that I wonder now if they weren't victims of some sort of a paralysis or polio-type thing, I don't know."
Today, moonshining has waned, as large companies can produce alcohol in large enough quantities to make its cost competitive to that made secretly without taxes. However, there are still those who wish to defy the government's authority by producing the liquid themselves.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.
Search our collection of full transcripts available online.