The above photo is of Mamaw Cochran with her siblings. Starting from the left is Aunt Bessie, Aunt Alice, Uncle Walker, and Aunt Persia. Mamaw Cochran is the one on the right end. The photo was taken in the 1930s or 1940s, probably in Swain County.
I don’t know if any of y’all have ever seen one of those contraptions they’re standing behind or not, but that is a moonshine still. Uncle Walker is taking a sip out of an old whiskey jug.
Over the years, lots of folks have shared old family photos with me. This one is probably my favorite; it speaks volumes about my heritage.
Moonshine is an integral part of North Carolina’s culture.
Around here, distilling good white lightning is an art form. Popcorn Sutton was born and raised in Haywood County. There he proved it takes a little creativity to make the perfect shine.
It’s also a sport. Junior Johnson was born in Wilkes County. He was 14 when he started running shine. Supping up cars to outrun the law is how Nascar was born.
And my family, both sides, spread across North Carolina, have played various roles in bootlegging over the years.
In 1924, my cousin-in-law, Elmer Stewart, was arrested in Brunswick County after a shootout with local law enforcement who had confiscated his still. Two officers were killed. Elmer and his daddy were sentenced to the electric chair.
Following their deaths in 1925, many claimed that one of the police officers had threatened the Stewarts on numerous occasions. Some believe the shooting was in self-defense.
5000 people followed the Stewarts to their burial site in Wilmington’s Bellevue Cemetery.
Across the state, in the 1940s or ’50s, Papaw ran shine. Ever so often, he’d drive over to Swain County. There his trunk was loaded with likker. He returned to Haywood County and parked in front of the Waynesville County Courthouse.
Papaw left the keys in the ignition and went for lunch. When he returned, the trunk was empty, and an envelope of cash waited in the glove box. He drove it back to Swain County, where he was paid handsomely for his efforts.
I once asked him if he knew who left the money. He said: Hell no! Booger, sometimes it ain’t smart to ask questions.
That lesson stuck with me. I never questioned the jar hidden on top of Mamaw’s china cabinet. I knew it belonged to Papaw or Daddy one.
I did start sneaking sips of it before I was out of high school, though. And occasionally, the jars Daddy would send with me for Mama never got where they were supposed to go.
I’m sure they knew what happened, but they never did ask any questions.
Did any of y’all grow up around moonshine too? If not, was your family ever involved in bootlegging?