Mountain Shine

Stories of bootlegging and a simpler way of life

Photo: Patricia Lyons

Imagine yourself in a little shack by the main railroad track that led into Franklin County, Virginia, from 1929 to 1934. Your job is to weigh all the inbound goods related to making moonshine. So today I ask you: How many pounds of sugar passed your shack during those hard Depression years?

You say, Over thirty-three million pounds.
Yeast: thirty-five tons.
Copper: over 115,000 pounds.
Five-gallon metal cans: about 1,250,000.
Cornmeal: over thirteen million pounds.
That’s into one county in southwestern Virginia.

A lot of money was made from selling those goods. And of course far more money was made from selling the moonshine produced with those goods—moonshine bootlegged to textile and coal-mining communities, to towns and cities north, south, east, and west, satisfying thirsts honed by Prohibition.

University of Illinois Press, $24

Photo: Margaret Houston

Spirits of Just Men

University of Illinois Press, $24

Charles D. Thompson Jr.’s gentle grandfather told Charles on a late-night drive, when Charles was an adult, that he’d once been a bootlegger. “All that we children knew from our grandfather,” Thompson reports in his new book, Spirits of Just Men (University of Illinois Press), “was his love for his family, his way with cattle, his soft heart…. So, with these revelations…my innocence ended, and my questions about my family’s past got all the more serious.”

Thompson started digging for information, and he dug and dug for about a decade—old newspapers, court records, history books, archives, interviews with family members and others in the know.

Consequently, his book is a fabulous and thorough collection of stories, facts, drama, character portraits, and court proceedings, including a chronicle of the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935. But here’s the good news: It reads smoothly and cleanly, like a tightly woven novel. And it’s about far more than bootlegging, as Moby-Dick is about far more than whaling. Another big plus is that Thompson does not ride on the cheap and easy road of caricature that many writers and artists travel when addressing moonshine and Southern mountain culture.

Thompson traces the long story of his people’s innocence and exploitation back to the Civil War and then on back to Europe. He also helps us understand the chasm between modern American life and the life lived by the locals in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Sherwood Anderson was on the scene in Franklin County during the Depression and also sensed this chasm. He wrote both fiction and nonfiction condemning “extractive” industries and government policies, while championing the mountain farmer. Anderson becomes a recurring participant in Thompson’s book. Other memorable characters are Robert E. Lee’s grand-nephew Carter Lee, who was both defendant and prosecutor in criminal trials; preacher James Goode Lane Hash, a circuit rider who wrote history on large wall calendars for fifty years;  and Miss Ora Harrison, a missionary who stood up for a bootlegger at his trial.

With moonshining as a key, Spirits of Just Men unlocks and spreads before us a simple and sane lifestyle still alive today in places like Franklin County. Thompson would not be a bit surprised to learn that just south of there, where I spend time each summer, I once talked on the phone to a power company representative who asked me to go outside and get the electric meter reading so she wouldn’t “have to send a truck up there.” Friends of mine have bought pies from a mountain woman they’ve never seen. They go into her house, pick up the pie off the kitchen counter, and leave her money. These are remnants of a lifestyle that needs to influence the rest of America rather than vice versa.

Spirits of Just Men is a great place to begin learning about Southern mountain people and their history—our country’s history. A major beauty of this book is its blending of a grand historical sweep with an exhaustive and pinpoint depiction of moonshining in Franklin County, Virginia, all flavored with the author’s love for his family and his people.