Moonshine Still on Bays Mountain

The Still

by Freddie Shephard

An old friend sent me word that he had written a little story about an incident that happened to us a long time ago. He said that no one ever believed him when he told the story, so he decided to write about it and wanted me to have a copy. The story is about what happened to us one time on a grouse hunt, and it is true. I know, because I am the Freddie in his story. Not counting delivery newspapers for a year or so, Vernon gave me my first paying job at his store. Working there on Saturdays and evenings after school provided me with the spending money that my Dad couldn’t afford to give me at the time. It probably also kept me busy and out of trouble.

Now, here’s my version of that grouse hunting story. That grouse hunt that Vernon wrote about took place in the fall of 1951 when I was a senior in high school. I had talked my Dad into letting me play hooky from school that day and go with him and Vernon on that hunt. I don’t remember, but I guess I had to ask Vernon for time off from work also. The grouse had been flying good that day and we had missed them all. There was even one that instead of flying off had landed in the top of an old snag and just sat there as we each took turns missing him. I know I heard him laughing at us as he finally flew off. It was just after that that Vernon stumbled onto the still. After that old snag incident we separated with Vernon going down the hill. I was in the middle and Dad was up the hill above me. We hadn’t gone very far when Vernon came running up the hill towards me waving and hollering for me to stop. “What’s wrong”, I asked. “I stumbled into a still, that’s what’s wrong”, Vernon said. “You what?”. By now Dad had heard us and came down to where we were to find out what was going on. “There’s a still down there in that holler”, Vernon said. Dad insisted on going back down there to see it. Vernon didn’t much want to, but finally agreed to show us where it was. Sure enough there it was. The cooling pot was all set up and ready to go and there were 6 barrels of mash about half buried next to it. We realized how much trouble we could be in and got the hell out of there. We were hunting on the end of Bays Mountain that belonged to the City of Kingsport, and it had at one time been the watershed for their water system. The old dam and reservoir were still there and a long-ago abandoned road was used for access to the fire tower on one side of the mountain and a radio transmission tower on the end of the mountain. A locked gate across the road about halfway up the mountain at the old water filter plant kept unwanted vehicles off the mountain. At one time there had also been a caretaker for something up there and his old house was still standing on a knoll above the dam. We had to walk a mile or more through the woods and back down the road to the old filter plant where the car was parked before we could get off the mountain. I don’t know about Dad or Vernon, but I expected the owner of that still any minute to step out of the woods and ask us where we were going. I was sure glad to get off the mountain alive, and it was years before I ever told anyone about that still. I did go back up on Bays Mountain squirrel hunting several times after that, but never again on that end of the mountain.

On the way home Dad kept insisting that we report finding the still to the police. He was a very religious man and drinking ranked right up there with murder and adultery on his list of Thou Shalt Nots. The fact that we were hunting on city property was why the police could get involved. The police chief then was Bill Fletcher and he thanked us and wanted us to go back up there with him to show him where the still was. Dad and Vernon didn’t much want to do that, but by now I was excited about being in on a police raid and talked them into going. Chief Fletcher had a key to the gate at the filter plant and we were able to drive to almost within spitting distance of the still when we went back up there. Another police officer went back up there with us that day. He had been nicknamed Sam Ketchum after the Dick Tracy character by the kids at Dobyns Bennett High School where he worked traffic and sometimes taught drivers ed classes. While Sam was looking for the copper pot and coil, the chief was busy busting up the other pot and barrels of mash. As he drove his pick into the first mash barrel that stuff squirted out of there all over Vernon and the Chief. I was laughing so hard at them I was not watching what I was doing and stepped right into one of the barrels. I now had sour mash all over me. That stuff may be good to drink after the distilling stage, but the mash stinks. Sam never did find the pot and coil. The mash we destroyed that day was ready to use and could have been turned into several gallons of moonshine. I guess we ruined somebody’s day. However, since Sam never found the pot and coil I have an idea they had the still back in operation as soon as they could get another batch of mash ready. I have often wondered if we were being watched that afternoon and what they must have thought when they saw me fall into a barrel of mash.

The area where we were hunting that day is now part of Bays Mountain Park and the old gravel road has been replaced by a paved one. The caretaker’s house was torn down to make room for a parking lot, and you can take moonlight cruises on the old reservoir. The walking trail around the eastern end of the lake passes within a few hundred yards of where the still was found. Hikers walk by it knowing nothing about the little bit of local history that took place there. The next time you are visiting the park, take a few minutes to walk down to the dam and stand on its eastern end. Then, while looking towards the end of the lake to your right, think back to a time when the woods there hid a way of life that was just as much a part of the history of Bays Mountain as the dam is. If you have a real good imagination you might even see 4 men and a boy take turns with picks and axes to destroy a moonshine still on a long-ago forgotten afternoon.