Moonshine Stills - Invisible Industry

The following series of 11 articles appeared in the Kingsport Times newspaper in late October and early November 1966. They provide a fascinating and in-depth account of moonshine activity in Northeast Tennessee at that time.

Kingsport Times-News  Oct 30, 1966

Million Dollar Jag

Part 1 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

Times-News reporter Bob Smith has spent three months investigating bootlegging – Kingsport’s “Invisible Industry”. He has talked to police officers, constables, deputies, state and federal agents, moonshiners, whiskey runners, bootleggers – and alcoholics. He has accompanied lawmen on raids, visited stills and bootleg houses in two counties, covered trials in city and criminal court and examined thousands of police records. His account, which begins here, is probably the most complete study of the “industry” – from manufacturing to consumption – ever published in East Tennesssee.

“Dry” forces harp on it. Churches preach against it. Police know about it but say they are powerless to stop it.

The Model City and its suburbs are a wide open, rip roaring haven for bootleggers.

Moonshine trickles into town from the surrounding slopes and bonded booze flows like a flood from neighboring counties and states.

Recent local court decisions on illegal search have opened the floodgates wider. Although the city continues to license beer distributors, police have given up all attempts to raid unlicensed dealers – another court ruling has forced them to prove that any stocks of beer they uncover are “intended” for sale.

Beer is even being peddled cold (and doubly illegal) to people too impatient to chill it themselves.

What effect does this have on Kingsport?

City police records reflect the bootlegger’s contribution to society. He furnishes a meeting place for the rowdy, the ignorant, and the brawlers, then supplies them with the key to turning off their inhibitions.

Moonshine doesn’t soothe the savage beast; police recount numerous assaults – several ending in death – at local bootleg joints, nearly all growing out of drunken arguments. Just as tourists’ auto windows are plastered with stickers showing where they’ve been, visitors to bootleg establishments sport bandages and scars.

Since these places have no “licenses” that could be taken away for bad behavior, the law has no effective means of controlling them except periodic fines – which are generally considered part of the bootlegger’s “overhead”.

And then there are the “polite bootleggers” who sell from their homes but refuse to allow patrons to congregate. Their customers include many of the city’s otherwise law-abiding citizens. They also include teen-agers who would have a tough time buying booze at a licensed establishment.

The “joints” are places where other offenses occur. Gambling goes hand-in-hand with bootlegging; police report poker and dice games at almost every joint in town. Customers must be entertained.

Entertainment also is furnished by the world’s oldest profession. Police admit that prostitution “definitely” goes on, but say it’s one of the toughest crimes to prove.

Drugs are passed around at the establishments, but officers say all of the pills confiscated are of the “legend drug” or “pep pill” variety, with no “hard” narcotics such as heroin and marijuana present.

Some places serve as clearing houses for stolen merchandise. Drunks have no scruples; they’ll steal anything to get whiskey. The bootlegger trades his product for items brought in, usually giving no more than a third of their value, then keeps, sells, or trades them at a profit.

In desperation, customers often will steal from their own families, carrying away television sets, electric blankets, and silverware. Since these items aren’t reported as stolen, police can’t do anything even if they raid a joint and find five or six TV sets in one room.

It isn’t unusual for a customer with cash in his pocket to be plied with liquor and then “rolled” in a nearby alley. A cut of this easy money is slipped into the bootlegger’s pocket.’

Since many of the joints are located in dark places where only the brave venture, victims may not be found for hours even though seriously injured. One man was left for dead on a lonely Long Island river bank after being severely beaten and stabbed in the chest; he dragged himself home and the incident was never reported to authorities. Another local patron who claimed he was shot in a Holston River thicket by a “gang” actually was the loser of an argument at a West Sullivan Street joint, police believe.

Bootleggers aren’t angels. A check of records revealed that the first five persons named on a police list of known bootleggers had been arrested for numerous other crimes. One of these, a Highland Park resident who still does a flourishing business, has been arrested for possessing whiskey (21 times); public drunkenness (13); carrying arms (5); drunk driving (2); possessing gin; assault and battery; contempt of court; felonious assault; disorderly conduct; reckless driving; and investigation of arson.

Another man has been charged with petty larceny, assault and battery, possessing whiskey, public drunkenness, felonious assault, and shipping alcohol to prisoners.

The joints provide an atmosphere of danger not only for customers but for the bootlegger himself. Some lead short lives, while others reach retirement age only through a keen eye and fast draw. “Zeke” Cleek, described as the most notorious bootlegger Kingsport has known, died in a hail of bullets fired in 1952 by “Buzz” McClain, a man he himself had shot the year before. One city bootlegger survived one attempt on his life about the same time by gunning down his assailant, and reportedly has shot two men in the years since.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 1, 1966

Police Can Name 41 Bootleggers In 5 Minutes

Part 2 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

Tennesseans have been turning out illegal whiskey since the first settler trudged over the mountains, fighting Indians with one hand and firing his still with the other, and it’s doubtful if moonshining will stop even when subdivisions dot every hillside.

National estimates 90 percent of the illegal liquor industry in these Southern ridges. A small amount is made around the larger Northern cities, but west of the Mississippi moonshining is practically nonexistent. The art remains almost the exclusive domain of the mountaineer.

Is it an art? Well, the moonshiner must know how to set up his still, how to mix his mash, and when to cook it to get whiskey. He also has to be able to hide his operation well enough so he won’t get caught.

But whiskey making can be a deadly practice, for much of the liquor which flows out of these hills contains the remains of everything from rotten leaves to dead ‘possums and a portion of it is highly poisonous. Moonshiners are competing against the highly successful legal liquor industry, and when you’re second best you try a little harder for volume rather than quality.

Over the past two centuries the illicit trade has changed little but most changes are for the worse. Once a pure copper rig was the first requirement of whiskey making and ‘shiners took a little more pride in their product; nowadays they’ll use anything on hand.

Basically, however, equipment is the same as it was in the days of Daniel Boone mash barrels, cooker and cap, “thumping keg”, and a worm and water barrel.

Although lawmen agree that the word “still” came from “distill”, no one seems to know how moonshining got its name. Most say it’s because the old-time moonshiner skulked about at night. A few claim it’s because the product is normally consumed after dark.

The entire moonshining industry includes a patterned network built up over the years to handle whiskey from the time ingredients are combined until the finished product warms a belly.

There is the moonshiner himself – or “wholesaler” as he is called by federal agents – who manufactures whiskey. He turns it over to the transporter, who carries it to the bootlegger, or “retailer”.

The bootlegger normally sells the liquor – which by now is often more water than alcohol – by the drink or bottle at his home, but he often delivers it to the doorsteps of people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a bootleg joint.

Bootlegging is common here. In five minutes, one city officer and three county deputies reeled off the names and addresses of 41 bootleggers – 22 inside the city and 19 on Long Island, where most county sellers reportedly are located.

All in all, it’s a working, flourishing, unseen industry which has everything a legitimate business has – including sales gimmicks, financial risks, and even some say a sort of union which prohibits amateurs from breaking into the game.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 2, 1966

Snuffy Smith Brews In Sullivan

Part 3 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

The still sits in a shadowed, wooded glen and you can’t see it until you’re right on top of it.

It’s a good location, one of the best, say the deputies. The underbrush is thick and the trees are large and close together, and there’s a small stream nearby to furnish the water that’s essential for making moonshine.

Perched on a small, hand-leveled plateau, the still blends with the background. It’s a copper outfit, but the parts are blackened by smoke.

There are two wood-and-earth dams across the brook; one is located at the point where the stream passes within 10 feet of the still and the other is several hundred feet higher.

The moonshiners built the upper dam and buried a plastic garden hose near its bottom, then unrolled the hose downhill toward the still, adding sections until it carried water into a barrel to cool the “worm”.

This still was found only a couple of miles from Kingsport on the slopes of Bays Mountain. The owners apparently had left in a hurry since whiskey was dripping out of the spout and the fire was going.

Who warned the ‘shiners? When deputies entered the forest, they passed a small home and its occupant rushed into the yard to crank a lawn mower; the motor noise carried for quite a distance down the valley.

Destruction of the still is carried out quietly and efficiently. Afterward the site resembles a WWII battle scene and the deputies bend to the task of getting valuable parts of the outfit back to civilization.

Near the crest of a hill, where a well-worn path crosses a barbed-wire fence, several bushes have been freshly cut and laid across the path in an obvious attempt to camouflage it.

“They’ve been making up there for years,” a deputy commented. “There was a truckload of ashes.”

The still is loaded into the trunks of two Sullivan County cruisers parked beside a weather-beaten frame house. The occupant comes out to see what’s happening.

He already knows, one deputy comments. pointing out the cases of half-gallon jars – thousands of them – stacked on the rear porch of the home.

Anyone who has ever read Snuffy Smith knows what a still looks like. There’s a big pot with a fire beneath, and a coiled pipe running from the top of the pot through a barrel of water.

The picture isn’t wrong; but check through ABC and ATU handbooks sometime and discover how many variations on this simple equipment have been made.

The lawmen can rattle off names of dozens of the different setups they’ve seen – “Ground Hog,” “Submarine,” “North Carolina Steamer” – and tell you in detail how each works.

“Every violator has his own method of operation,” said one agent.

But that old “Snuffy Smith Special” remains the favorite here. It’s called a copper still because it’s made entirely of that metal, and it’s one of the safest methods of making whiskey.

 A copper still has three main parts: The pot, “thumping keg”, and water barrel. Around Kingsport the pot is usually around 50 to60-gallon capacity and the “thumper” is a five-gallon keg.

The most peculiar part of a still, the thumper sounds a loud bass beat periodically when the still is running, giving moonshiners gray hairs and lawmen a noise to guide them.

Inside the water barrel is found the “worm,” a coiled copper pipe. A now-retired whiskey transporter says the worm is shaped by wrapping a half-inch or three-quarter-inch pipe about a tree and then chopping it down.

Ranking behind the copper still in popularity around here are the “Silver Cloud” and the 55-gallon metal drum still.

The Silver Cloud, made of a huge galvanized steel barrel which can be seen shining from a distance, is extremely  popular in mountainous, sparsely-populated Cocke County, but is too easily spotted here. The barrel is laid on its side on two supports and a fire is built beneath it.

The 55-gallon metal drum is an empty oil barrel used by fly-by-nights who aren’t too concerned with the fact that the metal is the source of deadly lead salts.

“Steamers” (which resemble laundry boilers) have also been found here – one of the largest stills ever confiscated in Sullivan County, handling over 150-gallons of mash, was a steamer.

Locally the moonshiner makes his mash in one barrel, then totes it by hand to his pot to be cooked. Up north, moonshining has gone modern; pumps and pipelines are used to get mash to the cooker. In such a setup, the outfit is usually a column distillery similar to those used to make legal liquor; sometimes five and six stories high, they’ve been found in houses, warehouses, and barns in continuous operation. It isn’t done in Kingsport because the outfit would rise above the trees and be visible for miles.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 3, 1966

Uncle Sam Provides ‘The Fixins’

Part 4 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

The federal government, the moonshiner’s Number One enemy, unwittingly provides him with  materials to make his whiskey.

Through its Surplus Commodities Program, the government distributes yellow cornmeal and sugar to indigent families in the area. Eventually much of it finds its way into the hands of bootleggers, who normally trade a half-pint of whiskey for a 25-pound bag of meal and are passed on up the line to the moonshiner.

The ‘shiner is all too willing to barter for the grain and groceries, since one of his biggest problems is trying to buy ingredients in large quantities without making store merchants suspicious (most have been warned by liquor agents to report unusually big purchases).

State ABC agents agree that “a lot of yellow meal is used,” and Sullivan County deputies report finding empty bags at many area stills they’ve uncovered.

The whiskey-for-meal isn’t just an occasional hard times trade, either. The items come into this area by the boxcar load every month for distribution by the Salvation Army. Although the boxcars contain other groceries such as rice and powdered milk, meal and sugar make up a great percentage of the total.

The bulk is probably consumed by deserving families, but there’s always a percentage available for whiskey-making – nobody knows how much.

The moonshiner mixes 50 pounds of sugar and a peck of corn in 50 gallons of water to make “mash” – they call it “beer” – and adds about 12 cakes of commercial yeast (not needed in hot weather) to start the fermentation process. Malt is added later if the corn is ordinary dry grain, but none is needed if “sproutin’s” are used.

A one-time whiskey maker explains “sproutin’s” are made by putting whole-kernel corn in a burlap sack and dampening it, then placing the bag in a warm, dark spot. The corn sprouts, “making its own malt”, and is ground into meal. “This gives it flavor,” he says.

Other grains – barley, wheat, oats – can be substituted for corn, but nothing else will give the whiskey that famous “corn liquor” taste.

Another ‘shiner favorite is chicken feed (cracked corn), which can be bought in huge sacks without too much worry on the maker’s part. The corn must be ground: “The finer the grind, the better it tastes.” However, wheat flour can’t be used, since it will only form a doughy paste.

Fifty gallons of mash will produce six gallons of whiskey. Adding more sugar will increase the yield, but flavor suffers.

“Straight corn liquor”, which is highly prized, is made without sugar, but the maker will get only a third as much whiskey, the ‘shiner says.

During World War II, when sugar was rationed, moonshiners here used “sweet horse feed” – grain sweetened with molasses – to make whiskey. The mixture didn’t produce as much liquor per barrel, but it kept the ‘shiner in business.

Mixing is usually done in wooden kegs buried ¾ or sometimes all the way in the ground. The mash ferments in these big open-top barrels for 24 hours in summer, 72 hours in winter since cold slows the process. Cow manure, often placed around the barrels in winter, furnishes heat via a decay process to speed up fermentation.

The grain floats on the surface of the mash when it’s first mixed. When fermentation is completed, the meal sinks to the bottom of the barrel, leaving a brown liquid on top. Moonshiners know the mash is then ready for cooking.

When the stuff has “worked” long enough, it can be strained and consumed in that state – but few people, even hardened drunks, have the stomach for this “still beer”. Not only is the milky liquid extremely sour, but since the mash has been standing in the open woods for a period of time, there are likely to be certain impurities in it – such as the rotting bodies of insects and snakes.

In this state, mash is ready to be cooked for whiskey.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 4, 1966

First Batch Is Pow’ful Stuff!

Part 5 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

“Best time of the year to make whiskey is in the spring when the sap’s up,” a moonshiner claims. “You can make more then – at least a gallon more on the barrel of mash.”

To “run off” a batch of whiskey, he said, the great pot is filled about ⅔ full with mash, then the cap is hoisted into place and the moonshiner “fires’er up.”

Although any kind of wood can be used, ‘shiners try to find wood which won’t smoke too much. Hardwood (oak for one) is best, say deputies. A slow-burning wood must be used because the pot will boil over if the fire gets too hot, spewing mash into the thumping keg and possibly into the finished whiskey. When this happens, the whiskey will come out milky.

Vapors, freed from mash by the heat, travel through a pipe into the thumper, which is an empty keg when the still first goes into operation. Any undesirable material which inadvertently gets into the line – for instance, if the pot spews over – will fall into the thumper, while clean whiskey vapors leave the keg through another pipe attached to its cover.

After a couple of runs, the thumping keg must be emptied of collected impurities. The stuff inside looks and smells like vomit (some makers call the keg the “puker”).

What causes the thumping? No one seems to know. The makers “reckon” it’s the result of vapors leaving the worm, presumably creating a partial vacuum inside the line and keg which periodically forced in the sides of the thumper, while still-hunters argue that the noise was caused by hot steam hitting the inside of the cold barrel.

“On a big still, it can be heard a mile away,” said a county deputy.

Leaving the thumper, whiskey vapors pour into the worm, where they’re condensed by cold water about the pipe and flow out the end of the coil.

Variations on the “worm” are found. There’s the straight pipe condenser, a pipe which runs along a stream bottom; the curved worm condenser, similar to a straight pipe except that the section of pipe beneath the water is coiled like a snake, forcing the steam to travel further; and the radiator condenser, which is merely an old automobile radiator connected to the pipe leaving the pot.

Dripping out of the spout, that first “white lightning” is powerful stuff indeed – almost pure alcohol. As the run progresses, the alcohol content drops until the last jar contains more water than whiskey.

The whiskey, therefore, must be “proofed down” by mixing the strong with the weak. Since the moonshiner knows about how much whiskey to expect out of each run, he begins by filling the first half-gallon Mason jar only half full and setting it aside, then does a second jar the same way. When he reaches the middle of the run, the ‘shiner has collected a string of half-full jars. He then fills the center jar to the brim and starts back up the line filling the others. When the original jar of strong whiskey is reached, the whiskey coming out of the spout is extremely weak and the run is at an end.

Less sophisticated ‘shiners merely fill fruit jars one after the other, then take the entire batch home and dump it all in a rain barrel. When they refill these jars from the barrel, all the whiskey is the same strength.

This last method gives the enterprising moonshiner a chance to make a few extra dollars on the run, by adding a gallon or so of water.

Taking advantage of native fruits, moonshiners have come up with several varieties of still-manufactured brandy, much of it made in the fall since mountain folk claim the fruits are no good until they’re “frostbit”.

“Paw Paws” and persimmons are used to make a drink which some connoisseurs claim is as good as the best Haitian-made brandy. Apple brandy is also common – one producer said rotten apples sometimes are used since fermentation already has begun, but ABC and ATU agents scoffed at this.

A rare product is moonshine wine, made by permitting mashed grapes (often native ‘possum grapes) and sugar to ferment, then straining the juice and sealing it in a wooden churn or jar. No head is added; the liquid stands for six or eight weeks as vapors are permitted to escape through a pipe into a smaller water-filled container causing an audible bubbling noise (the process is called “thumping it off”). When the bubbling stops, the liquid remaining in the jar is about 80 percent alcohol.

Dandelion wine, which is said to be concocted from the yellow flowers of dandelions and sugar, is made so seldom in this area that no one remembers exactly how it is manufactured.

Wine-making is so slow that it’s rarely made to sell. A bootleg joint on Long Island is the only known place in the county which handles wine, and then infrequently. Usually wine is manufactured only for private use on special occasions such as Christmas.

Also uncommon but not quite as rare is “home brew”, which is exactly what its name implies. Made in a bathtub or other porcelain container – never metal – home brew is the result of fermentation of corn meal canned malt, sugar, and yeast. “You can use Irish potatoes, but they give you a headache,” commented one man who had tried it.

One do-it-your-selfer said he preferred a 10-gallon crock. The brownish-yellow mixture is ready to drink in about a week in summer. The novice must be careful not to fill the jar too full, or the home brew will foam up and overflow.

Ingredients are cheap, so the cost of home brew is cheap – about 50 cents a quart – but the return of legal beer signaled the death of the native product since beer is just as inexpensive and contains about the same percentage of alcohol.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 5, 1966

‘Hide And Seek’ Name of Game

Part 6 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

The endless campaign to uncover and destroy stills is more like “Hide and Seek” than “Cops and Robbers”.

The whiskey maker accepts the loss of a still as one of the hazards of the profession, and officers charged with trying to put him out of business rarely express any real anger with him. He wants to make whiskey and it’s their duty to stop him; that’s it.

Moonshiners try every trick in the book to keep from getting caught. They try to avoid beating a path by taking different routes, and staying away as much as possible, visiting the site only to mix the mash and later to run off whiskey.

Sometimes makers have a secret spot near the still where valuable parts are hidden. When an attack is imminent, they tear down the still – flour dough is used on some joints rather than solder to speed dismantling – and secrete the parts. But if moonshiners receive scares often, this plan may backfire; officers may happen on the well-traveled path and follow it both directions to pay dirt.

Last year, a still was found inside a home on Shipley Ferry Road. A raiding party saw smoke coming from a chimney, but found the stove cold; they checked beneath a rug-covered trapdoor and found the outfit in the basement. Confiscated by the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department, the still sat on the front porch at the Blountville office for several days, then disappeared. Officers say it may simply have been reclaimed.

Liquor agents are proud of their ability to ferret out stills. “It’s a profession handed down from lawman to lawman,” said an ATU agent, who claimed that an experienced officer is able to see a trail the average man would overlook.

“Knowing the lay of the land also helps,” he said.

There are some big stills in the upper end of Sullivan County, so large that wooden plugs are used to close the emptying hole on the cooker, deputies said. These plugs must be driven in with a sledgehammer, and the resulting noise can tip off lawmen.

Herman C. Bomar, Jr., chief enforcement officer for the state ABC, said that during the first nine months of business in this area last year, agents knocked over 18 stills, confiscated 5,135 gallons of mash, and 324 gallons of moonshine, arrested 31 persons, and seized nine vehicles used to haul whiskey.

Why aren’t stills defended? Sometimes they are, but most ‘shiners flee rather than fight for a simple reason: killing is a more serious offense than whiskey making.

It’s also the quickest way to get a devastating crackdown launched, as moonshiners discovered three years ago in Cocke County when two agents were fired on and more than 50 stills were dynamited in the resulting sweep.

Supply and demand has made moonshining a sometimes-dangerous business for the consumer. Since the demand is high, supplying enough whiskey results in ignoring safeguards. Although an all-copper still is safest, makers often use an ordinary metal drum which can put lead salts into the liquor – and medical authorities estimate that 1/25,000 of an ounce of these salts can paralyze, blind, or even kill a man.

“Besides lead salts, chemists frequently find that moonshiners strengthen their product with wood alcohol, rubbing alcohol, or add beading oil to give the impression of high-proof whiskey to a low quality product,” one agent commented.

He added that about 90 percent of all illegal whiskey seized by authorities contains lead salts formed by oxidation of soldered seams and galvanized metal connections.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 8, 1966

While ‘Good Citizens’ Drink in Daylight…
Bootleggers Huddle In Dingy Corners

Part 7 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

What’s it like inside a bootleg joint?

One of the better-known places in town is run by a ponderously fat-bellied man called “Eddie”.

You enter the joint through the left front door of the building, stepping into a small pitch-black room illuminated only by light from a television set. Customers lounge on a broken-down sofa and in wooden chairs watching the TV. They’re drinking beer.

You pass through the “lounge” and enter a second room containing only a stove and a dilapidated bed supported on one corner by a cinder block.

The third room is the kitchen. It has a sink, a small table, a kitchen cabinet – and two refrigerators. You ask for a beer.

“It’s not cold yet,” Eddie says, but opens one refrigerator and drags out a beer anyway.

You open the can. The kitchen is incredibly filthy, as are the two front rooms. The floors are wooden and warped with deep gouges in places and one or two missing boards. Dirt covers the floor everywhere with the monotony broken every inch or so by a discarded pop-top tab.

Near the door there’s a box half-full of crushed beer cans. As the room begins to fill with people, the box follows suit. Customers in the advanced stages of drunkenness usually throw at the box and miss and their cans go clanking along the floor.

No pictures brighten the walls, but three beer openers hang on a nail above the table. The walls themselves are cobwebbed and smudged.

The room is small, but nearly 20 persons eventually stand around in it. A heavy-set man walks in, asks for a pint of whiskey, and Eddie unbolts a side door and steps into a dark room. He returns after five minutes carrying a nearly-full gallon jar of moonshine. The customer bickers with Eddie over the price of the entire gallon and finally buys only a pint for $2. Eddie leaves the whiskey in the sink and two other customers water down gulps of it in shot glasses.

Conversation sounds like a stag convention. One customer asks Eddie if any of “the girls” are around. Eddie replies that several were there earlier but had gone to another bootlegging place.

A woman, about 30, enters the kitchen and asks for some beer to go. The men unleash a barrage of obscene suggestions. The woman replies in equally filthy language and leaves the room with several men trailing her.

When you leave the building at 1 a.m., traffic is just beginning to build up for Eddie. Bootleggers don’t work 9-5.

While the bootlegger is condemned and his patrons pitied, no one bats an eye at the thousands of good citizens who break Sullivan County’s prohibition laws every day in homes, restaurants, and private clubs.

The law makes possession of liquor anywhere in Sullivan County, for any purpose, a crime. But any city or county officer who seriously tried to enforce that law would be out on his ear in a week.

A polite convention has grown up between the law and the people who break it. If an officer does not “see” liquor, no arrest will be made.

This explains the traditional “brown paper bag” around the bottle.

It explains the awkward partitions which divide restaurants into “private rooms”.

It explains the peculiar blindness of policemen and deputies who are members of “private clubs” where liquor flows freely.

“Set-ups” are advertised openly, and cocktail mixes sold in supermarkets: no one has ever explained what the residents of a “dry” county are supposed to do with set-ups and cocktail mixes.

A number of “private” bottles made their appearance, with the cooperation of the management, at a recent Tri-Cities public dinner. Among the guests were many of the “official” families of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol, the top echelon of the Tri-Cities press corps and representatives of colleges and cultural institutions from throughout Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

While none of these notables was seen to tipple, neither was anyone arrested, although highway patrolmen circulated among the drinking diners after directing traffic in the parking lot and the guest list included a sheriff who had spent the same afternoon raiding a still on Holston Mountain.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 8, 1966

MONEY: The Prime Motivation For Bootlegging

Part 8 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

Why would a man risk embarrassment for his family, censure from his neighbors, and classification with the town’s low-lifes and criminals in order to engage in the illegal whiskey racket?

Money: That’s why.

“There is a lot of profit, and they keep it all – they don’t pay taxes,” points out state ABC Officer Herman Bomar, Jr.

Whiskey costs the moonshiner about $1 a gallon to manufacture: Bomar estimated expenses at between 90 cents and $1.25 depending on the cost of ingredients.

Liquor is sold to the whiskey runner at varying prices, often depending upon how good he is at negotiating. Bomar said the runner usually buys and sells only after prices arguments unless he has a standing agreement with one side or both.

Whiskey may cost the runner anywhere from $2 to $6 a gallon. If the bootlegger buys it for $4, he’ll sell it in bulk for about $10; however he prefers to get rid of it in pints, since this can double the price.

A pint of moonshine sells for $2 in the county ($2.50 inside the city), and a half-pint is worth $1. To really bring in the cash, the bootlegger will offer the gallon for sale in “shots” – 25 and 50 cents a shot, served in ordinary water glasses (bootleggers aren’t fancy).

Bootleg beer sells for 50 cents a tall can, while bonded whiskey goes for $4.50 a pint. Most taxed whiskey brought into town is cheap stuff purchased in liquor stores for only $2 a pint.

Bootleggers deliver quite a bit of whiskey in town, but most of it is bonded liquor brought here from Knoxville and Virginia – Gate City and Abingdon – liquor stores. Few moonshine deliveries are made.

Sometimes the bootlegger himself or one of his cronies will make the actual delivery to the customer’s front door, or will hide it in a hedge or shrubbery on his grounds. Whiskey is also delivered by several taxi drivers in town who pick it up at the bootlegger’s and drop it off at the customer’s for a cut of the profits.

Bootleg joints vary in operation. One place in Kingsport is much like a small nightclub, with a bar, barkeeper, dance floor, and juke box – all located in a private home. Others are less fancy, selling beer and whiskey at their front door in the dark of night. There is at least one drive-in “package store” here. Customers drive through an alley beside the respectable-looking Highland Park home, stop their car at the enclosed back porch, and give their order to the person on duty. The attendant steps across the alley behind a run-down building and returns with the whiskey.

An extension telephone is located on the rear porch since this bootlegger makes deliveries. This reporter visited the place, asked to use the phone, and was told, “hurry it up, we get a lot of calls this time of evening.”

One Kingsport businessman with low overhead is the “pocket bootlegger”. He peddles his wares out of hidden pockets in his clothing, sometimes carrying up to 20 pints but more often but more often with only a pint or two on him. Described by police as a “small time operator”, he has no steady customers, but sells when he overhears someone express a desire for whiskey.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 10, 1966

Hiding Liquor Is A Fine Art

Part 9 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

When it comes to making good money, liquor is quicker but whiskey is risky.

Since mere possession is a crime, no bootlegger wants to get caught with his whiskey. Sometimes he’ll hide the liquor on a neighbor’s property, keeping just enough on hand so that if he’s raided the charge will be a misdemeanor. Officers, knowing this, check adjoining properties on a raid. But they’ll realize that the property owner isn’t bootlegging and will confiscate the liquor without making any arrests. Often the owner is afraid to talk because he fears retaliation.

Whiskey has been found in garbage cans in alleys within the city of Kingsport. “We just leave the search warrant in the can and take the whiskey… it’s all we can do,” said a police official.

If he’s forced to keep it on his own land, the seller tries every way to hide it.

He’ll put pints in junked cars, sometimes atop old tires beneath fenders, and in old refrigerators and stoves in his yard.

Officers find it hidden in outdoor toilets, ovens, attics, inside stovepipes on stoves and at the end of ropes in rivers and creeks.

The seller conceals it under leaves, marking the spot with a twig, or hides it in mailboxes, water meters, or fake sofa seats (everyone is asked to stand during a raid).

Some bootleggers’ homes have false walls, while others have caches beneath stoves set on small rollers.

City police have found it buried in the ground – they locate it by poking a sharp stick in the earth – and deputies says sellers will dig post holes the same size as a gallon jug, carry the dirt away, then stack jars on top of each other and cover the top one with dirt, a large rock, or leaves.

Bootleggers sometimes plant a patch of corn and never gather it, using the stalks as natural cover; they carry a bucket to the garden and return with whiskey. Pints are also buried in potato patches, since nothing is suspicious about a person going to his garden to dig up potatoes.

If the bootlegger deals in moonshine, he keeps a supply on hand in an ordinary bucket beside the kitchen sink. Caught by surprise, he pours it down the drain.

Bootleggers learned the hard way that just getting the whiskey into the sink isn’t enough. It has to get past the trap, a curved section of plumbing directly beneath the sink.

One officer taking part in a raid on Long Island saw a man empty a bucket of whiskey into the sink and rushed to rip loose the trap just as the man poured a pan of dishwater after it to wash out the trap. Although the contents of the trap were half dishwater and half alcohol, it was “good enough to convict on”, the officer said.

Now traps have been eliminated on most bootleggers’ sinks. A straight pipe runs from the sink to the floor on the porch at one Highland Park establishment.

A bootlegger accepts raids and fines stoically, and unless the fine’s a whopper, he won’t even kick. Why should he? It’s like advertising costs… his name appears publicly as a seller of alcoholic beverages and his business picks up.

The bootlegger loses money through lawyer fees, court costs, and fines, but still makes a sizable profit, according to one high police official here.

A lot of this profit comes when the bootlegger waters down the whiskey. He buys a high-proof liquor, refusing to accept it if it’s already been mixed with water, then doubles the volume in one minute at the kitchen sink.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 10, 1966

To Sell It Must Look Like Whiskey

Part 10 in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

If the label is torn off a food can in a market, that can will sit on the shelf until the merchant throws it away. He may mark the contents on the outside, he may slice the price, but he’ll never sell it.

Realizing the public depends upon a product’s appearance to guide them in making purchases, a bootlegger may go out of his way to make his whiskey look as much like the “high-priced” brand as possible.

He sells moonshine in pint bottles originally filled with taxed whiskey, although each pint states plainly: “Federal law forbids sale or re-use of this bottle”. The bootlegger buys them back at 5 cents apiece.

Since pure moonshine is colorless, the retailer approximates the color of legal liquor in a number of ways.

“Charred”, “charted”, or “chartered” whiskey is made by two methods. The easiest is by pouring it through a container of hickory charcoal briquets. The type sold in stores is generally not used; most are charred by the bootlegger himself.

In the second method, the inside of a wooden barrel is burned and excess charcoal is dumped out, leaving a charred coating inside the barrel. It’s filled with moonshine and set aside. Sometimes the barrel is left for as long as a year, but six months will color the whiskey. It comes out a reddish-brown color, much like bonded whiskey. Although it’s said to make whiskey taste better, this method has a disadvantage in that a portion of the whiskey will soak through the wood and evaporate. As much as one gallon out of every five treated this way is lost.

Traffic is so high nowadays that charring isn’t done too often since it takes so much time. “They got to get it on the move,” said one bootleg joint visitor.

A faster method is to add food coloring or cola soft drinks (“One bottle goes a long way”). Bootleggers often color whiskey by dissolving scorched sugar in it. This doesn’t affect the taste too much; in fact, it “takes the strong whing out of it,” a ‘shiner said.

The bootlegger doesn’t have any sales appeal problem if he sells beer, the third most popular alcoholic drink sold in town behind bonded and moonshine whiskeys.

Beer was here, was banned, and returned four years ago. But even back in the heyday of the beer joints – with names such as the Liberty Cafe, Smiley’s, and Sloppy Joe’s – bootlegging the beverage still was common.

Beer was sold in Kingsport taverns until June 30, 1952, when the Board of Mayor and Alderman outlawed it. Up until then, bootleggers took over its sale on Sundays, holidays, and after hours, and when it was banished completely they began a full-time business.

The City Board made beer legal again March 6, 1962, but added that the product could not be purchased cold. Chilled beer became the bootleggers “baby”, and remains so today.

There’s a city ordinance against selling more than one case at a time, but not in Johnson City, where the beer also can be bought cold. Johnson City thus has become the chief source of cold beverages since the bootlegger doesn’t have to buy in Kingsport under police scrutiny and doesn’t have to cross a state line – as he would in buying it in Gate City.

Kingsport Times-News  Nov. 12, 1966

We Drink Wet, But Vote It Dry

11th and final post in the “Invisible Industry” series by Bob Smith

Crime syndicates have organized much of the illegal liquor industry in the South, but the whiskey racket in the Kingsport area may or may not be involved.

ABC and ATU agents said a local organization controlled much of the traffic here, but a veteran moonshiner dismissed this with several epithets slightly stronger than “Hogwash!”
“They’re all on their own,” he said.

According to revenooers, the wholesaler (maker) may have 10 or 15 “drops” (bootleggers) for his whiskey. If the bootlegger buys from anyone else, or if a new moonshiner tries to cut in on an established supplier’s route, they’re in trouble. “They won’t get killed, but they might get caught,” said an agent; indicating police may receive an anonymous tip that “Old Joe is makin’ moon.”

Likewise, if a moonshiner lowers his price in an attempt to corner the market, his still may be chopped to bits or his barn burned down, agents said.

“An independent man wouldn’t last too long if he decided to try to cut in,” one man said. “The organization might tolerate a small operator, but if he interferes too much, he becomes a problem.

In this area the organization is “all local big wheels,” with no national groups such as the Mafia involved, the agent said.

But the moonshiner said only a few makers are big enough to supply more than one bootlegger at a time; most have a silent contract with that one outlet giving the bootlegger first choice of their product.

If the seller can’t handle the moonshiner’s entire output, the maker then has the right to sell it to other bootleggers or individuals.

As far as police know, there aren’t any stills inside the city. The last found by police was located in 1959 on city property atop Bays Mountain.

The wooded slopes of Bays Mountain occasionally conceal stills, but most are in Blairs Gap or Beech Creek on the lower end of the county and in the Hickory Tree section south of Bristol on the upper end.

Cocke County provides much of the whiskey sold locally, while some comes from Southwest Virginia, the Smokies, Knoxville, and Hendersonville NC. The whiskey racket in Cocke County reportedly is headed by a constable there.

More bonded liquor is probably sold here than moonshine. Tennessee-taxed whiskey is brought in from Knoxville, while Gate City is the chief source of Virginia-taxed liquor; a small amount comes from Abingdon.

Want proof that whiskey comes here from Gate City? Wait outside the ABC store on Main Street some Friday afternoon and watch the endless line of autos bearing Tennessee plates with Sullivan County stickers stop at the store.

According to the ABC’s own figures, residents of the town would stay drunk continuously if all the whiskey sold in Gate City were bought by them. In 1965 the store did $1,568,504 in net sales – that’s $737 worth of firewater for every man, woman, and child in town.

By contrast, whiskey sales in Appalachia – slightly larger than Gate City and also located in a “dry” county – average out to only $40 per person.

Abingdon, only a few miles from Bristol and Kingsport, is the site of the only liquor store in Virginia which sells more than $2 million worth of whiskey annually ($2,364,794 last year).

How heavy is the overall traffic? Officers won’t even begin to take a guess. City police said they average confiscating 300 to 350 gallons of illegal whisky per year, “only a fraction” of the total amount sold here.

ABC and ATU agents also decline to estimate the flow. “If we get it about right, they (their bosses) will want to know why we aren’t confiscating more.”

“The enforcement problem lies with the lack of public cooperation,” said Kingsport Safety Director R.L. (Jim) Eisenbise. “They’ll report a bootlegger, then won’t come into court to testify… they don’t want to become involved.”

His words were borne out by a woman who called this reporter to tell of a bootlegging operation on Gibson Mill Road. She described in detail how the bootlegger hid his liquor beneath a nearby abandoned store, but refused to give her name or report it to police.

“They peddle misery,” said the woman. “A lot of children go hungry because of them.”

Although it takes only ten names on a petition to start the ball rolling toward getting a bootleg joint declared a public nuisance, very rarely do brave souls come forward.

If police can name 41 bootleggers in Kingsport and Long Island without even checking their files, why don’t they “raid them out of business?”

“Everybody says let the police do it,” says Eisenbise, “and everybody has their pet peeve. But we have to enforce every law from spitting on the sidewalk to murder, and we just don’t have the men to do it.”

Presumably, after two or three raids in rapid succession, a bootlegger might temporarily close down. But the raids would have to be continued indefinitely to make the shutdown permanent.

Even court orders fail to stop the traffic. There always seem to be loopholes. Bootleggers solemnly “enjoined” in criminal court turn up on the arrest complaints again and again.

A city detective expressed resignation: “Bootlegging has always been here and it always will be. You might slow it but you can’t stop it.”

Would legalization of liquor stop the practice? Not completely since bootlegging occurred here even when beer could be bought in taverns. Although the seller encourages “dry” voting since it keeps him in business, he would still be able to rely on night and after-hours deliveries.

But statewide studies maintain that just as much whiskey is consumed in counties where liquor is banned as in “wet” counties.

Sullivan County votes dry and drinks wet.