By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Quite a few years back, on a beautiful fall day just like this one, a bit of unpleasant news filtered down through our village grapevine. Apparently, an elderly and well-known gentleman in our little community had been arrested for bootlegging moonshine. That the man in question made and sold corn whiskey was no secret to many in the surrounding area, for he had been doing it for the better part of his life and made little secret of it. Some of the first official reports claimed that this gentleman and his immediate family made and sold up to 9,000 gallons of moonshine each year. And while that may sound like a lot of ‘shine, it didn’t come as a surprise to me or to anyone else living within a 100 mile radius, because this fella had a reputation for making absolutely top-notch hooch and everyone who drank alcohol wanted a jar of their very own.
The truth of the case will forever remain a mystery to me, for I was not privy to the facts. But, the word around town was that the shiner had recently begun to brag about how much money he’d made over the years selling his whisky. Now, Ozarkers are known to be tolerant of many things that they don’t agree with, but one thing that really ruffles their feathers is a show-off or a braggart.
Unfortunately for this particular gentleman, the wrong person heard him boast one too many times and turned him in to the authorities just to prove a point. And when the modern-day revenuers came a callin’, they didn’t waste any time chewing the fat and he was arrested on the spot. No one who’d ever heard of him or his shine was one bit surprised by the fact that he was arrested. What they were surprised at was that he wasn’t arrested for making moonshine, but for failing to claim the profits of his sales on his income tax! That news led to all kinds of guffaws from the ol’ boys down at the quick stop who were in the know.
No matter what you think of modern bootlegging, moonshining goes way back to the time when America was still a British colony. Then, it was just as respectable as it was legal. And after the Revolutionary War, the U.S. government – who had recently been cut off from the funds of the British Crown – found itself in dire need of cash money to pay its debts and keep the newly fledged government afloat.
In order to raise the needed money, the government decided to impose an excise tax on the sale of liquors and spirits. Very shortly thereafter another kind of revolution arose. In 1794 the Whisky Rebellion of Pittsburg was the result of increasingly violent clashes between federal authorities and whisky-makers. Even though that particular rebellion was put down by several thousand of George Washington’s militiamen, it was not the end of hard feelings between a government wanting to collect taxes and whisky-makers who felt that it was another case of British-style taxation without representation.
By the 1860’s, well into the period of surging settlements in the Ozarks, the fight between moonshiners and tax men was already well-established. The whisky war quickly became violent as the poor people of the countryside, who had little market for their other farm products, turned to making whisky as a means to clothe and feed their families.
Although moonshining was relatively profitable in a cash-strapped economy, it was also hard and dangerous work. To help conceal the large plumes of smoke and steam produced by the whisky-maker’s still, as well as to hide it from competitors and revenuers alike, whisky-making was most often carried out in deep and secluded parts of the forest. With only the light of the moon to see by, whisky came to be known as moon-shine. Of course, that wasn’t the only term used to describe illegal whisky; shine, white lightning, corn liquor, hooch, firewater and good old mountain dew were all used with parity. (Hover over image for description and copyright.)
In the 1920’s, Prohibition was enacted in a laughable effort to put an end to the consumption of all alcoholic beverages. This measure only drove the price of shine through the roof and compelled yet more poor people to put their hand to the craft. Unfortunately, some of these newcomers were only in it to make as much money as they could and cared little about the quality of their product. Oftentimes, “bad” whisky was crafted in questionable and unsanitary conditions and was often diluted with kerosene and other dangerous chemicals. More than a few people died after drinking this type of toxic brew.
The situation became so precarious that customers would often ask the seller to prove that their whiskey was safe to drink by consuming some of it in front of the buyer. Speakeasies and hidden bar rooms sprung up all over the country and moonshining became big business for all manner of unscrupulous gangs, government officials, policemen, and even the revenuers themselves before Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
In a few short years moonshining again became a respectable business and those with the money established legal breweries and spirit houses, while those that didn’t continued to make their illegal moonshine in the back woods for another forty years.
Back when our neighbor got busted for shinin’ at the ripe old age of 82, he was already infamous among prohibitionists and general do-gooders, but afterwards…he was just downright famous. For in the end, all he got for all those years of bootlegging was a slap on the wrist and a $1,000.00 fine for unpaid taxes because they could never prove exactly how much shine he’d made or even sold over his lifetime and not one single witness could be found to testify against him in a court of law.
These days, the drinking of moonshine has seen a resurgence in popularity. I like to think that this is because of the increased availability of quality shine – be it from illegal stills, legal home-production, or corporate distilleries. But if I knew any better, I’d have to say it’s probably the result of a few recent reality shows that make breaking the law look like one hell of a fun time; quality hooch be damned.
Even with new legislation that allows individuals to make and consume a limited amount of liquor (in my state, anyway), an air of temperance still lingers in these conservative hills and hollers. So, if you suddenly find yourself being handed a glass mason jar filled with the clearest liquid you ever saw and ask where it came from, all you’re likely to get in return is tight lips and a sly wink of an eye. ~
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If you like this story, you should check out my book, A Journey of Seasons… I think you’ll like it!
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
Missouri Statute 311.055 provides that, “No person at least twenty-one years of age shall be required to obtain a license to manufacture intoxicating liquor, as defined in section 311.020, for personal or family use. The aggregate amount of intoxicating liquor manufactured per household shall not exceed two hundred gallons per calendar year if there are two or more persons over the age of twenty-one years in such household, or one hundred gallons per calendar year if there is only one person over the age of twenty-one years in such household. Any intoxicating liquor manufactured under this section may not be offered for sale”. This section is in conflict with Section 311.050, which says, “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, partnership or corporation to manufacture, sell or expose for sale in this state intoxicating liquor, as defined in Section 311.020, in any quantity, without taking out a license”. Because Section 311.055 is directed toward a specific circumstance, it should be controlling and should be considered an exception to Section 311.050.