Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Moon Shines Along Oil Creek

by David Parmer

In a previously posted companion article, Uncle Zeke’s War on Booze: Now That’s What I Call Drunk, Uncle Zeke made it very clear that many of his neighbors in the Orlando area during the 1920s and 1930s were either engaged in the drinking of moonshine or the making of moonshine. In nearly every newspaper column he wrote during this period, Uncle Zeke complained about the people who drank moonshine, paid money for moonshine, and bootlegged moonshine. He reserved his harshest criticism however for the real nabobs, the people who made the moonshine.
Click on the moon to the right to hear Fred Riffle, who lived on Oil Creek close to Posey Run, telling Minnie McNemar about making moonshine and home brew.1
Home Brew
There has been a long history of the manufacture and drinking of spirits in America since colonial days. Generally, people made their own whiskey, wine or beer which was sometimes called “home brew.” Thomas Jefferson planted many acres of grapes to make wine, and according to the guides at Monticello, also had a still which made corn whiskey and was known to have batches of home brew prepared from time to time. Indeed, throughout our history, until the Volstead Act brought in prohibition, Americans felt it their birthright to make alcoholic spirits. Many Americans, and many folks around Orlando, carried on the tradition of whiskey making, law or no law.

The author’s earliest encounter with home made spirits was an introduction to home brew. Around 1957, the author and a friend, Don Hawkins, was visiting the latter’s grandmother, Bernice (Mick) Hawkins in Burnsville, when a loud boom came from the direction of the cellar house. Upon investigation it was determined that one of Mrs. Hawkins’ bottles of home brew had popped its cork with a mighty bang. Of course, the making of home brew for self-consumption is and has always been legal, but it could not be sold.

Uncle Zeke however derided the makers and drinkers of home brew. Laced with sarcasm, Uncle Zeke noted in a January 1931 column that …”One great trouble with the world today is that too many people are trying to mix home brew and religion.” Home brew, a seemingly mild intoxicant, nevertheless was Satan’s drink in some quarters. Helen Jeffries recalls that Heaterhuck Henline told her that he and his cousin Newt Henline would mix up batches of home brew and hide it in Heaterhuck’s barn, or in a haystack, since it was a forbidden drink in both of their households. However, Heaterhuck’s mother, Samantha Henline, who had a keen nose, would periodically make an inspection tour of the farm’s outbuildings and haystacks in search of the illicit nectar, and upon discovery, reenacted a suitable impression of the firebrand prohibitionist Carrie Nation, disposing of the “devil’s brew,” much to the chagrin of Heaterhuck and Newt. Both of course professed ignorance of the ownership of the alcohol..

On the left are pictures of cousins Heaterhuck & Newt Henline, long after prohibition. To the right is Heater's mom and Newt's aunt (and Alexander & Phoebe's daughter) Semantha (Skinner) Henline. .

Moonshine, however, was public enemy number one. It was potent, over one hundred proof, and much in demand in the Orlando area. As it will be remembered, train travelers changing trains in Orlando would have over an hour to change trains, which was plenty of time to make contact with a bootlegger to buy a quart of old John Barleycorn. Many Orlando residents also felt the urge from time to time to imbibe in moonshine, or even to make their own best impression of the alcoholic drink, sometimes for self-consumption, and sometimes for illicit sale. Uncle Zeke felt Orlando was rife with bootleggers and moonshiners. In a October 1927 column, Uncle Zeke observed that “It seems like Orlando and vicinity is overdoing the speed limit here of late in the moonshine and bootleg business.” In a 1924 column, Uncle Zeke noted that “On last Wednesday, the 20th, the moon seemed to take on a little too much moonshine. At least it got real full that day.” Now whether Uncle Zeke was just noting a farmer’s almanac lunar condition, or was actually referring to some certain individual’s propensity to drink, we aren’t sure. However, Uncle Zeke, in a column shortly afterward, chastised Burr Skinner who was “getting so dry that he is willing to take the stump for either party the remainder of the campaign for a quart of moonshine.”


Click on the moon to the left to hear Fred Riffle telling Minnie McNemar about the law catching up with an Orlando bootlegger.1

Uncle Zeke would strongly suggest the identity of some he suspected of being a maker of moonshine. In a 1934 column, Uncle Zeke posed “Did you ever hear Jim Allen tell about making whiskey one time? If not, ask him to tell you.” In January 1931, Uncle Zeke wrote, “Last Friday, while on my way to Burnsville, my eagle eye caught the sight of smoke ascending from a ravine on the brushy premises of James L. Green. Knowing full well it was too early in the morning for Jim to be performing any farm labor, I supposed he must have been operating a moonshine still. So I wended my way on toward the fair city only to be informed that Jim had spent the winter up that little ravine trying to clear out a little patch of ground for his next year’s crop of cucumbers: and the smoke I saw was from a fire Jim had built the day before to sit by and talk politics with his shadow.” I wonder if the area law enforcement officers happened to go check on Jim Green’s cucumber patch after they read Uncle Zeke’s column.
We don't have any photos of Orlando stills in action, but this photo and the one below from the WV State Police Archives. may give us an idea of the apparatus involved.
A McCoy family, which lived at the head of a hollow near Lloyd Posey’s farm on Clover Fork during the 1920s and 1930s, were known moonshiners with a few indictments in the Braxton County Circuit Court to back it up. Dale Barnett tells us that McCoy’s modus operandi in the sale of moonshine was to not directly hand the buyer any whiskey, but to tell the buyer “under what clump of broom sage a five dollar quart could be found.” Two of the McCoy sons, Opha and Ersie, were chronically in trouble with the law on moonshine related offenses. Both young men however, mixed business with pleasure, and in addition to selling the moonshine, also drank it freely. Opha,while intoxicated one day in Orlando in the early 1930s, was entering Lee Morrison’s pool room, perhaps to play cards, shoot pool, or just to drink, missed a step while entering the establishment and fell on his hip, breaking the bottle of moonshine which had been sustaining him that day. The broken bottle inflicted serious cuts to Opha’s hip from which he bled freely, and also caused him to let loose with a string of profanities because of his loss of his bottle, according to a passerby, who hurried on her way. This was not the least of Opha’s mishaps caused by the over indulgence in the “white lightning.” In 1933, Opha, who usually came to Orlando from his home on Clover Fork by hopping a freight train, and went home the same way, mixed a little too much moonshine with freight hopping and ended up dead with multiple broken bones and a fractured skull. He was 26 years of age. Ironically, Opha’s younger brother, Ersie, just two years earlier in 1931, also met his tragic end by a freight train just about a quarter of a mile from the spot Opha was killed, while passed out and asleep on the railroad tracks. He was 21 years of age. Both Opha and Ersie are buried in the Wooddell Cemetery.

Opha's and Earsie's death certificates are on the left and right. click on them to read them.

The grandfather of Opha and Ersie McCoy, Addison “Hatfield” McCoy, who lived on Knawl’s Creek was known for making a fine turn of moonshine, according to Dale Barnett. Dale recalls an Ocheltree family who lived in the Knawl area “across the hill from Booger Hole” which was behind the Carney place, also was known for making moonshine. Dale was advised by his Aunt Lura Williams that one of the Ocheltrees would borrow a horse whenever he had a load of sugar to transport to the moonshine still. According to one recipe for moonshine, 200 pounds of sugar is required to turn out a batch of 35 gallons of ‘shine.’ A good horse could easily carry a 200 hundred pound load up hill to the still.

Charles Bennett of Clover Fork recalls when he was young in the 1960s he was coon hunting in the area of the former McCoy farm at the head of a hollow off Clover Fork and stumbled across a large cave which still had an old coffee pot beside an old fire pit which apparently had been used by the tenders of a still. Charles also found a “peep hole” which afforded a good view of the terrain anyone would have to cross to reach the area of the cave. Charles said he could visualize the moonshiners keeping watch for the revenuers at the peep hole in the cave.

Charles Bennett also related that Ed Cosner, an old resident of Clover Fork, near Chapman, liked to brag that during the period of prohibition, a revenuer in search of moonshiners, came to his farm on Clover Fork, and pretending to be a through traveler, inquired of Ed if he knew anyone who might provide him a drink of moonshine. Ed didn’t take the bait, and advised the stranger that “No, he sure didn’t know anyone who might give him a sip.” After the revenuer left, Ed breathed a sigh of relief because the large rock that the revenuer was sitting on, mopping his brow of sweat, was the covering stone of a large barrel of moonshine which Ed had cooked up and had buried a few days before. Ed also related that he had had the foresight to scrape and carry away the soil around the buried barrel because spills of the whiskey would have given away its location, if the revenuer had gotten a whiff of it.

Charles Bennett also advises that his grandfather George Bennett found a still and barrels of mash in a hollow on his property on Clover Fork during prohibition which someone was cooking up. George never found out who was using his property for the illicit enterprise.

Waitman Collins recalls that Jiggs Riffle of Riffle Run was a moonshiner who had a reputation for potent whiskey and could be counted on to have a steady supply.

Dale Barnett recalls that although he doesn’t know if they made it, John Blake and Cecil Bee, would bootleg a little moonshine to someone needing a little drink. Dale does however tell us that Early Riffle who lived on Road Run between Linn Strader and Oke Strader was a purveyor of moonshine of his own making. A favorite spot of Early to transfer the commodity in exchange for five dollars was the water tank area at Posey Run where trains, and thirsty trainmen, stopped to fill the steam locomotives with water. The only trouble with this location was that it was within sight of the residence of Uncle Zeke who could sit on his porch and watch the transactions unfold. And who knows, the whole transaction might be in the next week’s newspaper column of the Buzzardtown News.
To indicate his feelings about the merits of the taste of moonshine whiskey, Uncle Zeke said “[I]f you want something that beats bootleg whiskey try the following: Take one quart of bedbug juice, add to it one pint of liquid extract of polecat, drop in this solution a lump of asafedita about the size of a hulled walnut, to this add one pound of pulverized tumblebugs, pour the mixture into five gallons of swamp water, sweeten with ten pounds of limburger cheese, let stand for three days, bottle and use. Yum-yum.” Another Uncle Zeke taste test for moonshine came in response to an inquiry of a preacher “What is sin?” Uncle Zeke responded, “Honestly, I don’t know unless it is what the devil puked up when he was drunk on moonshine whiskey.”

Perhaps from his porch in Buzzardtown, Uncle Zeke espied an illegal sale of moonshine which led him to report that “John Barleycorn, Bill Moonshine, and Jake Bootleg were all seen on our streets recently. And speaking of the moon shining on Oil Creek, Uncle Zeke noted that “when the devil gets the grafter, the moonshiner, the bootlegger, and the liar, there will be but few devilish people left.” .
1. The two sound bytes are from a 1984 interview of Fred Riffle by Minnie McNemar from the Central West Virgina Oral History collection at Glennville State College.

comment 1 Donna Gloff
John Carney told us about Kate Moran's skill in brewing (perfectly legal) dandelion wine in the Nov '06 entry Dandelion Wine & Applejack. To the right is wine maker Kate with her brother Mike Moran and grandsons John and Pat Carney. (The woman standing next to Mike is unidentified.)

comment 2 Dale Barnett

Dale Barnett remembers Addison “Hatfield” McCoy of Knawls Creek. Dale also recalls that Presley Bragg, the mail carrier from Orlando on the Knawl’s Creek route, told him that during a mail delivery day in the 1940s, Pres was driving up the Knawl’s Creek road in his jeep and happened upon Hatfield McCoy walking down the Knawl’s Creek road buck naked, carrying a load of willow branches he had apparently had cut along the creek. Pres thought that it would be best to just drive on by, pretending not to notice the bare facts, even though it might not have been considered neighborly.
comment 3
As a child Dave Hyre heard that his grandfather, Frank Lake, was blinded by home made alcohol.
Frank, sightless, is pictured here with his young family.
Read about Frank Lake's difficult life in the Dec '06 entry Frank and Lena Lake Moved to Orlando
comment 4
Here is a definition of moonshine from Wikipedia.
Moonshine is a common slang term for home-distilled alcohol, or whiskey for the hills, especially in places where this production is illegal.
The name is often assumed to be derived from the fact that moonshine producers and smugglers would often work at night (i.e. under the light of the moon) to avoid arrest for producing illegal liquor. The 1811 edition of the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose, defines "moonshine" as follows: "A matter or mouthful of moonshine; a trifle, nothing. The white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and the gin in the north of Yorkshire, are also called moonshine." [1] It has been suggested that the term might derive from smugglers' explaining away their boxes and barrels as "mere moonshine" (that is, nothing). (Jonathon Green, American Dialect Society Mailing List, 31 Oct 2001)

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