That Good Old Mountain Dew

That Good Old Mountain Dew


By Elton Camp


            Marshall was one of many “dry” counties in Alabama in the 20th Century.  That meant that liquor sales were illegal.  The coming and going of prohibition at the national level meant nothing locally.  Church doctrine dictated law.   “Dry” was, however, entirely a legal fiction.  Whiskey in the form of “moonshine” was readily available.  Many men, and a few women, enjoyed an occasional drink even though drunkenness was universally condemned.  The whiskey must be produced and purchased covertly.  Lawbreakers feared the preacher far more than they did the sheriff. 


            Sunday sermons often brought a tirade.  “Whiskey’s th’ drank o’ th’ dev’l.  Mor’ families has been ruin’d by hit than anythin’ on airth.  Them whet makes hit air sinners as ere them whut buys ’n’ dranks hit.  Th’ lake o’ fare ’waits ’em.  When ye air screamin’ ’n’ beggin’ fer mercy, Jesus ez jest gonna laugh ’n’ say sorry but I ne’er knowed ye.  Ye air but a goat, fit only fer destruc’ion.” 


            The minister made no distinction between moderate use of liquor and drunkenness.  “Now, sum sez a lettle bit ain’t got no harm ’n hit.  Thet’s a trap o’ Satan fer th’ unwary.  Ef three drinks makes ye drunk, that means ye air one-third drunk when ye take jest one.”


            The exhorter ignored the first miracle of Jesus:  water turned into wine.  He was a fundamentalist who affirmed the earth to be flat since the scriptures spoke of its four corners. Every word in the Bible was literally true; nothing was symbolic.  The children of Israel had come out of Egypt on the backs of actual eagles.  Animals with seven heads and ten horns could be located if only one looked hard enough.  Nevertheless, he’d assure those who asked that the Bible really meant grape juice when it spoke of wine. 


            On a fishing trip, Preacher Johnson confided to a fellow pastor, “Thar’s sum thangs ’n th’ Bible I wish warn’t thar.  Like th’ Lawd makin’ wine ’n’ Paul tellin’ Timothy t’ drink wine instead o’ water.  They shore air hard t’ ’xplain.”  The other minister nodded in agreement.  At times, the Scriptures could be inconvenient.


            On the occasions of anti drinking sermons, fervent “Amens” arose from the flock, but even some of the men making the affirmation shifted uneasily on the hard pews and ignored accusing glances and mates’ elbows punching their sides.  The preacher should stand up for what was right, but he’d gone all the way into meddling.  Perhaps a lesser amount in the collection plate would make him reconsider. 


            The young son of a local bootlegger hid a grin as he listened to the sermon.  He had inside information, but it had to remain secret.  Again last week, Preacher Johnson had come calling at his home.  The pastor’s visit had nothing to do with bringing a wayward man to repentance. 


            “Uh, Silas, y’u know thet my wif’ has been doin’ poorly lately.  I think maybe she has th’ grip or somethin’.  Do y’u ‘pose y’u kud give me a lettle bit o’ that medicine y’u make?  Y’u know th’ kind I mean.” 



            Silas knew well enough.  Johnson was one of his regular customers, even if a nonpaying one.  The preacher always spoke in terms of medicine.  For him to pay for it wouldn’t be fitting.  Folks might get the wrong idea. 


            “Y’u must ’ave a lot o’ sickness at yore hous.’  This ez th’ secon’ jar this month ’n’ hits a week ’till Nov’mber starts.”  Silas wanted the parson to realize he wasn’t being fooled, but it was best to do it in a way that signaled he was willing to go along with the man’s pretense.             


Leamon, Howard, and Leon liked to go rabbit hunting.  They tramped a good distance into the woods and were about to cross a fast-running stream. Leon spotted something he hadn’t seen before. 


            “Whut’s thet?”  He pointed toward a collection of containers, some large and some small.   One of them had a twisted copper pipe attached.  Ashes showed that a fire had recently burned beneath one of the larger receptacles. 


            “Probably Ole Man Purdy’s still,” Leamon answered.  “Everybody knows he makes shine.”


            They were a considerable distance from the man’s cabin, but that was necessary since the characteristic smell of a still, when in operation, could carry a good distance if the wind was right.  It needed to be far enough from his dwelling that he could deny its ownership if authorities happened to discover it.  The stream provided the necessary water for cooling and condensing the vapor into alcohol.  The thick trees and bushes provided the needed cover for his illegal operation.  In all his years of operation, he’d never been raided a single time. 


            The moonshiner had little to fear from Sheriff Richards with whom he had a good working relationship.  As long as the officer remained reasonable in his demands, payments were a legitimate cost of doing business. 


            The Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department was another matter entirely.  They functioned as a national police force that could cross state lines in search of illegal distilleries.  They often went right into the home territory of the small businessmen.  Even if they didn’t capture the moonshiner, they destroyed his expensive equipment.  “Revenoo’rs” as they were called had little respect from anyone in the community.  It was rarely possible to bribe them.  Few wanted the law enforced that strictly. 


            “We’d best git out fr’m heer afore he shows up,” Howard advised.  He looked uneasily around the perimeter of the small clearing. 


            It was too late.  They’d been spotted.  Mr. Purdy stepped from behind a bush, a long rifle in his left hand.  Nearly six feet tall, he was powerfully built.  A several-days growth of beard covered his face.  He wore bib overalls and a blue, long-sleeve shirt.  On his head was a straw hat.  Rough, brown work shoes covered his feet.  He scowled at them and shifted the gun to his right hand. 


            “Whut y’u boys doin’ messin’ ’round wif my still?” the formidable man demanded. 


            “We jest chanced up on it, Mr. Purdy.  We don’t mean no harm,” Leamon explained.  The encounter made him momentarily abandon the more correct English he’d learned at school. 


            He looked at their smaller rifles, plus the accumulations of Spanish needles and cuckle burrs on their pants.  “Rabbit huntin’ I see.  Y’u boys git out fro’m heer ’n’ don’t b’ tellin’ nobody whut y’u seen.”


            “We won’t,” Leamon assured the man.  “Let’s be on our way, fellows.” 


            The boys kept their word.  Moonshining was a long-established, semirespectable occupation in most of the South.  The home distiller need fear being reported only by one of his competitors or a bitter enemy. 


            Sale of the product was from the whiskey-maker’s home.  Most of them took intense pride in the quality of their product.  It was impossible to advertise, so building a customer base depended almost entirely on word-of-mouth.  Satisfied customers were his most valuable assets.  A crudely lettered sign “Worms for Sale” sometimes helped identify a bootlegger’s house.  He would, however, sell only to people with whom he felt comfortable. At the least, a referral was required.  Complete strangers were far too risky. 


            When made improperly, moonshine could be a dangerous, even deadly, drink. Wood alcohol, methanol, could be present.  If so, it could act within hours to bring blindness or death.  Lead poisoning from the solder used in making the still could build up over time to dangerous levels.  


            Some people sincerely opposed any use of alcohol.  Their viewpoint was often based on the destruction of lives and families brought by drunkenness.  Others employed selective use of Bible verses, separated from context, to justify their conclusion.  All such teetotalers desired that any use of alcohol should be prohibited and laws enforced. 


            “Nary a drap has e’er pass’d my lips,” asserted Mrs. Rachel Thompson. 


            She took the lead locally in trying to influence wives to persuade their husbands and sons not to drink.  The idea that a woman might indulge was beyond her wildest imagination. 


            “All y’u got t’ do,” she assured a young wife whose husband sat on the front porch in a drunken stupor, “ez lay th’ law down t’ him.  “Tell him ef he ’xpects t’ consort wif y’u, he can’t touch ole hootch.”


            “Y’u reely think thet’ll wurk?  He’s powerful fond o’ th’ stuff.”


            “My man ain’t had a sup in o’er twenty years and he wuz jest as hot fer th’ stuff as yores.”


            Mrs. Thompson was nearly at the end of menopause.  She found immense relief from bottles of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.  She recommended it with enthusiasm to any ladies of her acquaintance as a cure for “female complaints.” 


            “I git hit at th’ drug stor’ in Albertville.  As long as I take hit ever’ day, I feel a whol’ lot better.  Hit’s got a secret ingredient what th’ doctors don’t want y’u t’ know ’bout.  Hit’d cut ’n t’ thar bus’ness too much. Jest try hit ’n’ see fer yorself.” 


            What she didn’t know was that the elixir contained eighteen percent alcohol.  When feeling particularly ill-disposed, she felt the need for Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters.  It was nearly half alcohol, far more than many whiskeys.  Such patent medicines were also readily available from traveling medicine shows. 


            “I’d nearly ez soon commit adult’ry as t’ take a drink o’ whiskey,” Mrs. Thompson had been heard to say on many occasions.  She was a righteous person. 


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Hypocrisy by some who condemned use of alcohol