Just this past year, I heard on the news that President Bush pardoned a man imprisoned for many years for the conviction of making and selling white lightning (moonshine) liquor.
In the Appalachian Mountains during the thirties and forties, around the areas of Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia, the business of operating liquor was flourishing. It was a hard time for many and operating liquor was a way to make a living and survive. Nevertheless, a risky business because federal agents were constantly on the prowl to catch, arrest and destroy the stills, usually hidden in some remote backwoods area.
Liquor is made with a combination of sugar, yeast, a carbohydrate and water. In the days of white lightning, the carbohydrate was corn, commonly known as corn liquor. I recall growing up in the 1930s—a jar of white lightning was always kept in a kitchen cabinet, and if we were sick with anything, we were given a teaspoon of the liquor with sugar in it to help whatever ailed us as kids. It had a wonderful taste to it.
My parents did not drink, but some others in the country community did, and I recall how funny and amusing they were if they stopped by our house for a visit. To me as a young child, I thought they were very entertaining.
Today, in the Northeast Georgia town of Dawsonville, there is a liquor still museum. An interesting reminder of an era when making corn liquor was a way of life for many folks of that time period. Several movies and documentaries have been made romanticizing that era—when it was a way of life for many—dodging the federal agents (“the feds”) out to destroy the stills and arrest the operators.
The major problem was due to some of the copper used in the liquor stills. If not properly used, the copper could be poisonous, resulting in sickness and death. Yet those operating stills as a business had to make a living in hard times and felt the government should not have the exclusive right to make and sell liquor. During the Great Depression, when there were no jobs and money, many living in backwood communities did what they had to do to survive and feed their families. And did so by doing the one thing they knew how to do…and that was making corn liquor.
After making the liquor, there was the problem of marketing the product, which spawned another industry of whiskey runners who delivered the liquor to towns and communities. Gallon jugs were filled and loaded up in cars suped up to outrun the law. I heard tales of how they would select times of heavy traffic to avoid notice when the backs of their cars were so low down, loaded with the heavy bottles. The law would be on the lookout for such vehicles, therefore the runners would select times of heavy traffic to make deliveries in order to avoid suspicion and flow with the traffic.
However, they were expert drivers and would frequently outrun the law if followed. They learned how to spin a car around, to make a turn so quick they were difficult to catch. Known as the whiskey turn, they could be going in one direction and suddenly spin around and head in the opposite direction.
So adept they were at fast driving and quick spin arounds, the business of racecar driving was born. The huge business of racecar drivers as we know it today actually began as the result of the maneuverability of white lightning liquor runners.
Actually, the people back in those days operating liquor stills and marketing their product were entrepreneurs making a living for their families the only way they knew how in order to survive. Despite the fact it was declared illegal by the government, the law in no way stopped the still operators from doing business. Some were arrested; some were killed along with the federal agents trying to catch them.
As times changed and liquor stores dotted the landscape of cities, the backwoods white lightning operators went out of business, I for one was happy to hear the President had pardoned one man incarcerated for making illegal whiskey to survive, providing for his family during that period of difficult economic times.
Let Freedom Ring!