Aug. 10, 1958, just north of Blacksburg, Va.:
The blue ’58 Ford sedan was hard to keep on the road. Moving at nearly 90 miles per hour and heavily loaded in the back, the car’s front tires weren’t making good contact with the pavement, causing the vehicle to “dance” over the winding and hilly mountain roads. The Ford was equipped with a supercharged Offenhauser engine, believed by many to be the best racing engine ever built. At 90 mph, the Ford was nowhere near its maximum speed. The back seat and the trunk of the Ford were loaded with 200 gallons (1,300 lbs.) of moonshine whiskey destined for Winston-Salem, N.C..
The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) enforcement agent spotted the Ford from a high bank overlooking the road. ABC agents had received intelligence about this run, and a trap had been set. At the Gap Mills Bridge, two Thunderbird interceptors blocked the road, forming a “V” that no car could pass. A mile down the road from the lookout, a pursuit car waited: a souped-up 1950 Oldsmobile 88. The pursuit car would chase the liquor-laden Ford to the blockade, bringing it to a halt.
That’s the way it was supposed to happen. But the Ford’s driver had other plans.
The Ford pulled away from the pursuit vehicle and was going nearly 100 mph as it approached the bridge. Moving too fast to stop, the Ford’s driver tried to turn the vehicle into a cornfield adjacent to the road. The heavy load in the back caused the Ford to spin around 180 degrees and continue down the road backwards for 285 feet (nearly the length of a football field) while its tires spun forward at a high rate of speed. The tire’s burning rubber released billows of blue smoke, and an acrid odor and squeals filled the air. Sparks were flying from underneath the Ford, and an ABC agent later testified that he saw a great ball of fire coming from the Ford’s dual exhaust headers.
When the Ford’s driver regained control of the vehicle, he tore through the cornfield. The surprised ABC agents jumped into their Thunderbirds to pursue the Ford, but they were just “chasing air”—the Ford was nowhere to be seen. Days later, the Ford was found along with two other vehicles and 2,000 gallons of illegal whiskey in a barn just south of Christiansburg, Va.
Stories like this one are what motivate collectors of moonshine and prohibition memorabilia to expand their collections. Every item—whether a classic car modified to haul liquor, a piece of a moonshine still, a jug, a Mason jar or a bit of the product itself—has a story.
The History of Whiskey Making
Tales of liquor-making are woven through American history: colonists began making whiskey on the banks of the James River just a dozen years after the founding of Jamestown; George Washington had a still at Mt. Vernon and Jefferson had one at Monticello; John Hancock was a whiskey distributor; Martin Van Buren was born in his father’s tavern; and Abraham Lincoln had a liquor license and operated a tavern.
Making whiskey was legal in America until the Revolution was won, and, needing funds to pay for the War, George Washington’s government decided to tax whiskey. The citizens didn’t like paying the tax, and The Whiskey Rebellion ensued. After that, all whiskey makers had to be licensed, and those who didn’t want to buy a license and pay the taxes went underground.
Whiskey making has always been a recession-proof business. In good times and bad, the demand for whiskey has always outstripped the supply. Early settlers distilled whiskey for their own use from whatever they grew in their vegetable gardens. Plus, whiskey provided them with a cash income and a medium for trade. A farmer with a few acres of corn could get about 100 gallons of whiskey per acre; three bushels of dried corn could be turned into about two gallons of alcohol. The whiskey was more valuable than the corn alone, and the leftover corn mash could be fed to cattle.
During Prohibition, all whiskey making was illegal, and anyone with resources and daring (and indifference to the law) could get rich making it. During Prohibition in the 1920s, moonshine from Virginia and North Carolina was regularly sold as far north as Philadelphia. It’s said that during the Great Depression, the top bootleggers in Franklin County, Va., always had tens of thousands of dollars in cash on hand. Franklin County, Va., is deemed “The Wettest County in the World,” by author Matt Bondurant. His book recounts the story of the infamous Bondurant brothers during the Prohibition era. The escapades of the Bondurant brothers are also portrayed in the 2012 John Hillcoat movie, “Lawless.”
Treasury agents only captured a small percentage of the whiskey that was produced during prohibition. Given the amount that was captured, it’s hard to imagine how much whiskey was actually produced. In 1926 alone, Federal agent L.E. Bridges reported 337 stills captured and destroyed within a 75 mile radius of Floyd, Va., along with 1,713 fermenters, 334 wood doublers, 333 flake stands (contains the condensing tube), 249,750 gallons of beer, 3,773 gallons of whiskey and 90 gallons of brandy. There were never enough agents or equipment to adequately police the territory, and the territory was huge.
During Prohibition, whiskey was made in almost every county in the United States. So, collectors can find whiskey-making paraphernalia all over the country. Some of it is antique, some vintage and some relatively modern. Moonshiners have always “made do” with the materials on hand. Some stills were sophisticated copper creations, others hybrids of metal and stone, and others jury-rigged contraptions made from residential water heaters and automobile radiators.
It’s unlikely that moonshine and Prohibition collectibles will be in short supply any time soon. The moonshine tradition is alive and well, and interest in the subject is growing. Currently running on The Discovery Channel is the, ahem, reality show “Moonshiners,” which depicts (according to their advertising) “the secret world of moonshiners.”
Here in southwestern Virginia, whiskey making paraphernalia shows up from time-to-time at live auctions. One can easily find it on eBay. Moonshine equipment is generally bought by collectors but sometimes it’s bought by fools who want to distill their own hooch. Be forewarned: authorities have admitted to scouring eBay and social media sites to locate potential illegal activity.
Even though one can buy a complete still on eBay, I wouldn’t recommend it. In some states, one can possess a still as long as whiskey is not being made. In my home state of Virginia, it’s illegal to possess a still at all and the penalty for even possessing illegal (read: untaxed) moonshine is equivalent to the possession of marijuana.
Of course, to be busted for making, selling or transporting moonshine one has to be caught in the act. That’s why the “stars” of the show “Moonshiners” haven’t been arrested: by the time a show airs, they are long gone—and they didn’t need a supercharged Offenhouser engine to make their getaway.
Previously published on WorthPoint.com
Originally posted 2014-02-21 10:42:00.