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A brief history of moonshine in Greene County

A brief history of moonshine in Greene County

Editor’s note: We had asked the community for any family recollections or personal stories but, unfortunately, we did not receive any. We’re happy to do a follow up if anyone wants to talk about their memories of moonshine in Greene County in the future. Just email tbeigie@greene-news.com.

While Franklin County in southwest Virginia is known as the “Moonshine Capital of the World,” Greene County—and more specifically Bacon Hollow—made quite a name for itself before, during and even after prohibition.

Howard Maiden, a former resident of Swift Run Gap before the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) was created, said this about Bacon Hollow in an interview in 1977: “I was always told … more moonshine made there than any other holler anywhere around near.”

According to the “Greene County” book, Greene County—and Stanardsville itself—had a reputation for lawlessness and rowdiness after the Civil War that continued into the 20th century.

Judge R.N. Early of Greene County recalled Bacon Hollow had “a good many murders in the years 1900-1940.” While there were several murders during that time within the Record archives, not all were in Bacon Hollow, according to the SNP Oral History Project at James Madison University. There were many fights resulting in serious wounding as well.

“Prohibition years were the worst; stills had always been in the mountains for everyone that made legal moonshine, but when prohibition was in effect the people made more whiskey and seemed to fight more frequently. The people in Bacon Hollow were good, hardworking people,” Judge Early recalled.

Fisher Finks, of Madison County, agreed in a 1978 interview that the mountains were dangerous during prohibition, and not just in Greene County.

“I tell you the worst, I believe, that ever hit the state was when the state went dry in 1918 and then started in making moonshine,” he said in a 1978 interview. “If that never happened, I think we would have been much better. Back over here, around the mountains, was a lot of killing over there.”

Finks recalled listening to “old man Morris” of Bacon Hollow tell him that “every murder, every stabbing in here, it all has been liquor the cause of it,” about a graveyard in Bacon Hollow. (Editor’s note: there is no first name listed for Mr. Morris in the interview.)

One of the most famous incidents regarding moonshine was the case of Edgar Morris.

Edgar Morris (dubbed in the press “The Bad Man of Bacon Hollow”) appeared in court to be tried for disturbing a church service while drunk; he shot magistrate B.G. Sullivan in 1919 in the Greene County Courthouse after being fined $20. After receiving an 18-year sentence, he escaped in 1923 from a prison work site and hid in the Bacon Hollow forests until captured.

According to an Oct. 21, 1926, Virginia Star newspaper article, Morris’s grief took over and he was removed from prison to an asylum at Marion.

“Edgar Morris was tried in Charlottesville on charges of murder, given a life sentence and died insane (mountain people couldn’t stand confinement),” Judge Early recalled.

No matter the name—moonshine, white lightning, mountain dew or mountain juice—it was certainly made here, as evidenced by the Greene County Record and Greene County Register (the Record’s predecessor) archives. During prohibition, there was rarely a week without a mention of moonshiners in Greene, Madison and western Albemarle counties.

“As I live in the land where they use brandy for milk and where they believe in having a little fun occasionally by fighting, I suppose the readers of the Register will be glad to know what is going here. We are glad to say that there will not be much apple brandy made this year as there is but little fruit. The less quantity that is made, the better for the neighborhood,” The Register reported in 1904.

Distilling is the boiling of a fermented “mash” and cooling the alcohol-laden steam back into a liquid for whiskey, according to the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College. Mash is a combination of water, grain, malt, yeast and sugar that is allowed to ferment. Fruit was used to make brandy.

Virginia went dry a few years prior to the country’s banning of alcohol (prohibition) in 1920. While prohibition ended in 1933, the taxes on legal liquor were quite high, so many in the region continued making moonshine into the mid-19th century.

When Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge Rev. Frederick Neve visited the region and realized the remoteness of those living in the mountains as well as the lack of churches and schools in those regions, he created numerous missions—but it wasn’t always easy. Missions in Greene County included: Mission Home in Shifflett Hollow, Simmons Gap, Pocosin Missions (upper and lower), Middle River and Cecil Mission in Lydia.

In a 1912 Times Dispatch newspaper article, Neve asked for prayers for the missionaries near Simmons Gap and Bacon Hollow.

“Conflicts with illicit whiskey makers, attempts to repress the rowdy and a determination to remain with the mission had brought upon the Rev. Roy Mason and his assistants the bitterest enmity of the lawless mountains. Threats and attempts upon the life of the workers were of common occurrence. Lawsuits and threats alike failed to shake the determination of Rev. Mason and his band to stick to the mission school and the mission, the best people of that community live in daily expectation of outbreak and possible tragedy at the hands of the moonshiners. At one of the magistrate court trials one of the moonshiners pointed his gun at Rev. Mason’s head and snapped it twice. The cartridge failed to explode.”

According to Phil James and his book “Secrets of the Blue Ridge,” Mason started up a vinegar operation in that area that paid the same price for apples that distilleries offered.

“On the whole, the initial economic effects of prohibition were largely negative,” said Ken Burns in his PBS series “Unintended Consequences.” “The closing of breweries, distilleries and saloons led to the elimination of thousands of jobs. One of the most profound effects of prohibition was on government tax revenues. At the national level, prohibition cost the federal government a total of $11 billion in lost tax revenue while costing over $300 million to enforce.”

Burns went on to note that prohibition made criminals of millions of Americans.

“As the decade progressed, court rooms and jails overflowed and the legal system failed to keep up,” Burns said.

Raymond Morris, who lived in Simmons Gap prior to the park’s land acquisition, called his father “a great moonshiner” in a 1979 interview. He said his father sold it for about $2-2.50 a gallon and the majority of his buyers were in the Shenandoah Valley. While Morris doesn’t recall a specific signal to let people know that revenuers were coming, E.P. Shifflett, of Bacon Hollow, said in a 1979 interview that often a wife would ring a dinner bell or call a cow or something to tip off the moonshiners.

“During the depression, you couldn’t sell apples; you couldn’t sell nothing,” Mrs. E.P. Shifflett said in the same 1979 interview. She said it was called “white lightning” in Bacon Hollow.

“People was forced to make moonshine or else starve,” E.P. Shifflett added.

Prohibition hit the state hard without the tax money. In one month of 1924, revenue agents confiscated property worth $47,116 used by moonshiners, according to a Record article. There were 15 automobiles taken, 116 arrests, 125 stills collected and 86,687 gallons of mash emptied onto the ground.

In an Aug. 4, 1921, Greene County Record article, during testimony in a trial in Fredericksburg, the accused J.G. Ballard of Charlottesville traveled through Greene County and the quantity of liquor he was carrying increased from two gallons to 12 gallons in Greene but he didn’t know how that happened.

“Monday morning, he testified, he awoke in his car near Ruckersville and found the increased quantity of brandy but had no idea how he had obtained it,” the newspaper recounts. He was fined $300 but served no jail time.

In May 1923, there were 15 stills found in Bacon Hollow one week, according to a Times Dispatch article. An additional eight stills were found in Bacon Hollow that month, as well, and seven people were arrested, according to the Record.

The first to be caught in Greene County after the prohibition law went into effect, according to a July 24, 1924, Record article, was A.P. Morris of High Top. He received a $50 fine but suspended jail time.

Revenue officers captured a large still in September 1924 but then it “disappeared,” according to another Record article.

“Revenue Officers Smith, Alexander and Fletcher captured one of the largest outfits in Bacon Hollow Friday that was ever destroyed in Greene—a 60-gallon still and about 2,000 gallons of mash. The 60-gallon still that was captured last week and put in the clerk’s office for safe keeping was taken out through one of the windows Monday night,” the article stated.

The probation officers did not always catch a suspect during raids. In October 1924 the Record reported eight revenue officers destroyed 1,700 gallons of mash in the western part of the county. In November of the same year—also in the Record — Wharton Jarrell was reported found with a keg of four gallons of peach brandy.

“(He) ran a quarter mile before they captured him, still holding fast to his old peach. He was asked why he held onto it in the race. He said it was good quality and he hated to part with so precious an article.”

It was not only men making moonshine in the mountains of Greene County.

Rebecca Breeden, 94, of Greene County, was arrested and attended the March 1925 term of the Greene Circuit Court. She told Judge John W. Fishburne “those around her mountain home were manufacturing it and she wanted to be in fashion,” according to a Times Dispatch article. She was not sent to jail because of her age, the paper reported.

Prohibition officers W.H. Fletcher, Paul Nicholson, J.L. Dirting, H.L. Dulaney and W.T. Rexrode destroyed several stills in Greene in late June 1926: one 30-gallon still; one 20-gallon still; 140-gallon still and 125-gallon still. Several hundreds of gallons of mash were destroyed in the process, according to the Record.

“Prohibition inspectors Wood and Fletcher and Sheriff Melone rounded up three and charged them with manufacturing moonshine in Bacon Hollow. In the raid the same day the officers destroyed 15 barrels of mash and several stills.”

Sometimes when the officers located the moonshiners they also found weapons, including in June 1925 when they arrested three near Dyke Post Office for making moonshine with a 60-gallon still. They found one double-barrel and one single-barrel shot gun with several rounds of ammunition, according to the Record.

In a 1926 Record article, Bluford Johnson, a farmer near Nimrod in Bacon Hollow, was reportedly found with about 15 gallons of apple brandy stored in his home, to which he pleaded guilty and received 60 days in jail and a $50 fine. A father and son, Patrick and Dewey Shiflett, were indicted and found guilty in the murder of Johnson in 1927, the Record reported. Local officers had dubbed Pat Shiflett the “King of Bootleggers.”

In February 1927, a 25-gallon copper distilling outfit was found in Bacon Hollow, which Inspector W.T. Rexrode called “a moonshiners’ hangout” to the Times Dispatch. One arrest was made and Rexrode also found a 50-gallon still on the Rapidan River in Madison County.

One still was captured in Bacon Hollow in February 1929, according to the Record. They also captured four other stills that week: three in Rappahannock County and one in Madison County.

In a letter to the editor of the Record in 1931, B.I. Bickers said Greene County had a nearly perfect year in 1930—only nine convictions. “So, we can be proud of the fact that we have almost a perfect county and town from the drinking and bootleg source, judging from convictions,” Bickers wrote. “So for once we are prepared to challenge any county in the state for a perfect clean up of violations of the prohibition law and ere long we can call it ‘a perfect day.’”

Prohibition officially ended in 1933, but the illegal manufacture of liquor in Greene County continued for decades.

In 1944, seizures of stills in Greene, Madison and Nelson counties increased “noticeably.”

“Despite an upward trend in seizures in this area, there is little to indicate any substantial revival of the moonshine whiskey industry in Albemarle County, only one still not in operation when found, being seized in that county recently,” according to a Feb. 17 Greene County Record article.

In July 1951, the Record reported two more stills were found in Bacon Hollow: a 10-gallon copper still along with 50 gallons of blackberry mash—used for making blackberry brandy; and a 30-gallon copper still with 100 gallons of whiskey mash.

Three Greene County men pleaded guilty in federal court in March 1952, according to the Record. Oliver and Clark Shiflett of Dyke pleaded guilty to operating a still near Nortonsville. Oliver was given six months in prison at Camp Lee and fined $100 by Federal District Judge John Paul. Clark received a suspended sentence. Givens Morris of St. George received two years’ probation following the plea after a 30-gallon still was found near St. George.

In 1956, 125 gallons of alcohol was found during a roadblock in Madison County (see photo).

The Record also reported that in 1957, a man from Dyke was arrested for possession of untaxed whiskey and operating an illegal distillery. In 1960 five Greene County men were found guilty of manufacturing moonshine in federal court, including one who pleaded guilty to operating a still in Bacon Hollow, according to the Record.

According to a 1982 New York Times article, when the economy goes down, the manufacturing of moonshine goes up.

“The scene of agents destroying stills, chasing moonshiners and pouring out ‘white lightning,’ as the clear and powerful homemade whiskey is known, was repeated recently in Albemarle and Greene counties in Central Virginia.”

In 2012, the movie “Lawless” was released based on the story of a family in Franklin County and their moonshine operations. In the 1970s, twenty 800-gallon submarine stills were found in one location in Franklin County. Additionally, in 1979, an underground still was found in Franklin County under a fake cemetery a farmer created on his property. Franklin County hosts a Moonshine Heritage Month annually and invites the public to learn more about the culture.

While rumors of continued moonshining in the mountains persist, no arrests for large-scale operations in Greene County have been made in recent years. In fact, numerous distilleries in Virginia now sell legal moonshine, including Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpeper and Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville.

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Editor, Greene County Record

Terry Beigie is the Editor of the Greene County Record in Stanardsville. She can be reached at tbeigie@greene-news.com or (434) 985-2315.

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