Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history on display at the museum. This week, we look at the history behind The Liberty Tobacco Warehouse, which burned last week. This week she recruited Terri Ingalls, local storyteller, author, actor, and tour guide, to write a column looking at the region’s moonshine history.
Moonshine and bootleggers were known around the world but there is a uniquely American fascination with both. Surry and surrounding counties had a strong tradition of stills “in the hollers” and many local folks tell tales of daddies and uncles supporting their families by “runnin’ ‘shine.” On Mar. 14, 1917, the Mount Airy News reported Oscar Monday, CL Spangley, and LA Smith, local authorities working with the revenue office in Roanoke, VA, were cracking down on still operations in the region.
Though they knew moonshine was plentiful in the area they found nothing until they got a tip to “look in the dry hollers” north of town. Confused because stills needed water and so were usually built next to creeks, they followed the tip and found two concealed wells. In one, under 18’ of water, they found the still.
In the 1700s, when settlers from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales arrived they brought their culture and skills. One of those skills was whiskey-making. Beer, ale, and hard cider were drunk in the colonies much in the same way that we drink sodas today, but the preferred drink for the Celtic settlers was distilled whiskey, used as medicine, barter materials, antiseptic, and as a way to deal with the harsh reality of daily life.
Distilling spirits has been big business in Surry County where, in 1810, there were 110 distillers making 41,015 gallons of spirits, which they sold for 50-cents a gallon. During Prohibition moonshine in this area was as likely to be apple brandy as corn whiskey given the number of orchards.
Carrie Nation, the ax-wielding temperance crusader, toured North Carolina in 1907 and declared Salisbury to be second only to Chicago as “the whiskeyest-soaked city in the United States.” In 1909, North Carolina imposed statewide prohibition and became the first state in the South to ban the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages, and the first state in the nation to do so by popular vote.
That didn’t mean the distillation of spirits ceased. In the 1920s, the North Carolina chief prohibition enforcement agent said, “we have more illicit distilleries than any other state in this Union, and the number is increasing.”
The 18th Amendment was ratified in January 1919 prohibiting the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcoholic beverages. Although Chicago was the center of illegal whiskey activity most moonshine legends grew out of the secluded hills of the rural South.
Many elements were involved in successful moonshine production. A good product was at the base, but one also needed a good car which bootleggers modified for the most smuggling space and best driving performance. The drivers, skilled and daring, particularly on the roads between North Wilkesboro and Charlotte, gave birth to NASCAR.
The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, was ratified in 1933. Two years later both Virginia and South Carolina accepted the ratification and North Carolinians crossed state lines to buy legal liquor taking huge sums of potential tax dollars with them. Before that year’s end, the North Carolina legislature began the legal process to allow liquor sales by county vote.
In 1937 a North Carolina Governor’s Commission reported that whiskey could be easily obtained, even in dry counties, with an astoundingly large number of people engaged in the illegal whiskey business. It was recommended that North Carolina control liquor sales through a state monopoly on the theory that a government-run establishment would have no incentive to encourage customers to drink more as a privately licensed dealer might.
The first government-run liquor store was opened in Wilson on July 2, 1935 and shoppers spent $1,003 on 825 bottles of liquor. More than 100 customers were turned away when the store closed at 6 p.m. Distilling is slowly coming back into acceptance, both legally and by the public with the first modern legally licensed distillery in Surry opening in 2015 when Mount Airy native, Vann McCoy, opened Mayberry Spirits.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 336-786-4478 x228