Many people know a little bit about the era of Prohibition in America or have at least watched films about moonshiners, such as the 2012 Hollywood drama “Lawless” starring Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy, adapted from the novel The Wettest County in the World by Virginia-native author (and descendant of the Bondurant family) Matt Bondurant. The movie and book both tell the tales of the Bondurant brothers and their bootlegging enterprise in Virginia’s mountains.
But did you know that Franklin County, located in the mountains of Virginia, came to be known as the “Moonshine Capital of the World” due to the region’s heavy involvement in the illegal moonshine industry that occurred during Prohibition?
Jamestown: America’s Moonshine Roots
In 1620, just 13 years after the Jamestown settlement was established, Virginia colonists were using corn to distill spirits along the James River. This was the first time moonshine was made by colonists in America, although the indigenous peoples had been producing their own alcoholic beverages from corn and other native plants prior to the arrival of colonists.
Fast forward to the 1700s, when the English, Germans, and Scots-Irish began immigrating to America and settling into western Virginia’s backcountry, where they would bring their own traditions for making homemade spirits, using fruits to make brandy and grains to produce whiskey.
Image Courtesy of The Library of Virginia
From the earliest colonial settlement into the industrial era of the 1800s, producing spirits became a part of life for the small rural communities of Southwestern Virginia. The agricultural aspects of the communities and a lack of roads to transport produce grown on the lands to other parts of the state resulted in an abundance of fruits and grains to use in the distilling process. Instead of wasting the fruits and grains that they were unable to sell, the farmers used a homemade copper still and wooden barrels to mix the mash and store resulting spirits for years to come. A farmer could make enough liquor to cover his own family’s needs and then sell or trade the rest with other members of the community, allowing them to utilize produce that would have otherwise spoiled and been thrown away. Plus, the spent grains left over from the distilling process could be fed to cows, pigs, and other livestock. In a way, early Virginia moonshiners were some of the first eco-friendly farmers in America!
Illegal vs. Legal Liquors
Many of the Scots-Irish, German, and English citizens that immigrated to American were in part fleeing from what they viewed as unfair taxes imposed upon them by their former countries, and one such tax was on distilling whiskey. When they came to America, they believed that they would be free of these fees and could resume producing their own distilled beverages without infringement from the still-forming U.S. government.
But the Revolutionary War was at hand and the country needed money to pay for the care and supplies for American troops, so the government imposed a tax on alcohol. In response, lots of citizens chose not to license their distilleries or pay taxes on the resulting liquors. These were the first “moonshiners” in America, with many residing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia where a smaller, less dense population and large tracts of land allowed them to hide their operations with relative ease. But crafting spirits was not only a pastime for poor rural farmers; middle and upper class Americans on the eastern seaboard were known to build large dedicated stillhouses; George Washington even made his own liquor commercially at Mount Vernon, and you can still visit this distillery today!
Spirits would be taxed by the American government on and off for about 40 years after the Revolutionary War, followed by a 45-year untaxed period; however, with the start of the Civil War, Congress would again pass a whiskey tax. Each gallon of whiskey would be taxed two dollars, an astounding average of twelve times the cost of making these spirits. Not surprisingly, some distillers preferred to run their operations illegally rather than pay these high taxes. These rogue distillers would operate as illegal moonshiners, competing with the 77 legal distilleries that would open in Franklin County by 1894.
Prohibition & The Rise of Moonshine Running
With the close of the 1800s, America’s stance against alcohol was gaining support. Laws were passed during this time to make rural distilleries illegal, and in the following years, Virginia counties one by one banned both the production and sale of spirits. By 1914, Virginia voted to ban alcohol completely and the Commonwealth was completely dry of legal liquor. Moonshiners would ignore these laws and continue delivering their products in motor vehicles to industrial towns like Danville, Lynchburg, and Roanoke. The United States introduced Prohibition nationwide in 1920, and as a result, the moonshine industry that had been steadily growing in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains would explode overnight.
Moonshiners & Police: A (Lucrative) Game of Cat & Mouse
The image of a moonshiner in the Blue Ridge Mountains tends to bring to mind an impoverished backwoods farmer, but in reality, some moonshiners would turn an incredible profit, especially during Prohibition. In Virginia’s mountains, a few bootleggers were quite wealthy, earning tens of thousands of dollars in cash while the Great Depression was in full swing. One such moonshiner in Franklin County bought an airplane so that his son could fly over their land and make sure their stills weren’t visible from above.
As Prohibition ended in 1933, moonshining had become a huge economic force in the mountains of Virginia, and although alcohol was once again legal, the profits from illegal moonshining in the region remained high, encouraging the bootleggers to continue their shady enterprises.
Image Courtesy of The Library of Virginia
Police officers and tax enforcement officials hunted down moonshiners throughout the United States with the help of local informants (which could sometimes be the bootlegger’s own competition). After receiving this inside information, the agents would monitor the moonshiners and their property with the hopes of raiding the still sites when the moonshiners returned to distill. The stills found during a raid would then be destroyed using axes or sticks of dynamite. If a moonshiner ran, the agents would chase them down, but most of the time, the men caught red-handed would give up without a fight; violence was a rare result for moonshine raids at the time.
Instead, moonshiners would adapt their distilling techniques to avoid capture, running thin pieces of thread across pathways to detect if their sites had been visited without them knowing or building underground stills that weren’t easily discovered. A famous example of this occurred in the late 1970s in Franklin County, where a moonshiner bulldozed a massive hole into a field, built an underground room with a sod-covered roof, placed cinder block “headstones” on top, and created a fake cemetery that they regularly mowed and placed flowers throughout. The still was discovered in 1979, by which time revenue agents estimated that it had run for several years before being discovered.
Running From the Law: Moonshiners & NASCAR
Some revenue agents opted to chase down moonshiners during transport rather than stake out their still locations. Most moonshine journeys from still to buyer would go smoothly, but occasionally, if agents were tipped off to the trip, they might set up roadblocks or wait along the planned route for the moonshine runner to pass by. Two-way radios had not yet been invented, so evading capture was still possible for moonshiners with fast vehicles who knew the winding country roads along their route. Skilled bootleg drivers were known to use a “bootleg turn”, where they would spin the car into a 180-degree skid to shake pursuers.
Popular culture has long associated moonshine running with NASCAR auto racing, but in reality, very few moonshine drivers from the Blue Ridge were involved with organized racing. Instead, the connection lay in the local garages, where mechanics used their skills to modify engines to increase speeds and suspensions to ensure better handling on the roads. These skills translated easily to the world of NASCAR, where speed and balance were two of the most important factors of racing.
NASCAR might not have acquired many drivers from Virginia’s illegal moonshine trade, but one such driver who did come from this background was Wendell Oliver Scott, a Black American racer from Danville’s “Crooktown” section. Scott began his driving career as a taxi driver, but would also use his skills as a fearless driver and a knowledgeable mechanic to haul illegal whiskey, which would help him become the first and only black driver to win a major-league NASCAR race. The Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, located in Richmond, has a hands-on exhibit for all ages that tells the story of Wendell Oliver Scott and his significant contributions to NASCAR.
National Headlines: Franklin County’s Conspiracy Trial of 1935
Illegal moonshine was made in secret stills throughout the United States, but the mountain towns of southern Virginia were thrust into the national spotlight with the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935. Although Prohibition was no longer in effect, illegal moonshine was still a thriving industry, as moonshiners went to great lengths to avoid paying taxes on their products. Some government officials in Franklin County accepted bribes to look the other way and protect bootleggers from other lawmen and moonshine distillers; even the Sheriff of Franklin was in on the racket, overseeing a complex bribery system for the biggest moonshine producers in the region.
Using the tax rate instituted in 1920, moonshiners in Franklin County would have generated $5.5 million in taxes between 1930-1935 if they had legally sold their products. During this same time period, more than 1 million five-gallon cans (used for storing whiskey) were purchased in the county and 37 tons of yeast were ordered (nine times that of the capital city of Richmond). These details and the lack of tax revenue caught the attention of lawmen on a national level, and a federal investigation began.
The trial would pitch Franklin County into complete chaos, with threats, jury tampering, and the murder of a key witness, along with a uninvolved bystander, happening during the proceedings. Two men connected to the illegal liquor trade in West Virginia would be charged and convicted of the murders, but another witness perished under suspicious medical causes during the trial, casting doubt on whether the trial could possibly end with a successful outcome.
The tense trial was the longest in Virginia’s history, and the dramatics of the case consistently kept it on the front page of newspapers, not only in Virginia but in papers around the country. Local moonshining legends kept the attention of readers, who loved tales of individuals like Mrs. Willie Carter Sharpe, who was known as the “queen of Roanoke rum runners.”
Eventually, 34 people would be indicted in the case, including 19 bootleggers, one corporation, and nine government employees, but when the trial finally drew to a close, the resulting convictions and punishments were surprisingly light for the crimes; jail sentences were two years or less, fines were shockingly low, and thirteen of the 34 would only receive probation. Almost 85 years later, many people in Franklin County still have strong opinions on the case and the men who were charged. And an air of mystery continues to surround the case, as part of the trial records “disappeared” from the Franklin County Courthouse files.
Moonshine in Virginia Today
Virginia’s moonshine history runs deep, so it’s no surprise that the mountain region of Virginia still has plenty to offer when it comes to distilled spirits. Head to the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum in Franklin County to learn more about moonshine heritage and the distilling practices passed down over multiple generations.
Musicians within the region write songs about homemade “hooch”, stills have been repurposed into art exhibits, and you’ll find merchandise emblazoned with moonshine logos in stores throughout Virginia’s Mountain region. Franklin County hosts an annual Moonshine Heritage Month to commemorate the history and cultural aspects of moonshine with tours, special events, and costumed interpreters.
If you want to sample authentic Virginia moonshine in its legal form, visit Franklin County Distilleries, the first legal distillery founded in Franklin County. The distillery is in the small town of Boones Mill, famous for being home to the Bondurant brother’s store during Prohibition, where the bootlegging brothers and their associates would transfer moonshine for national distribution. Another moonshine distillery in the area is Twin Creeks Distillery, where you can sample moonshine, fruit brandies, and “White Whiskey”, the distillery’s pure, unaged corn liquors available in 90- and 100-proof. The third moonshine distillery to open in the county, Law’s Choice, does not have a tasting room open to the public, but distills their moonshine in Franklin and sells it at select ABC stores throughout Virginia.Finally, if you’re visiting Southern Virginia, plan a stop at Bondurant Brothers Distillery in Mecklenburg County, run by one of the grandsons of the legendary Bondurant brothers. The cold mash moonshine produced at this distillery is a neutral spirit that makes for a perfectly balanced cocktail.
Looking to sample moonshine in other parts of Virginia? There are distilleries in almost every region of the Commonwealth making legal moonshine, allowing you to get an authentic taste of Virginia’s moonshine history during your visit!
Want to know more about Virginia’s lesser-known history? Check out our articles about Virginia Beach & the Historic Cavalier Hotel or Airlie & the Origins of Earth Day, and stay tuned for more But Did You Know… history articles to learn about some of Virginia’s most amazing untold stories