Tuesday, May 21, 2013

DePinto: Southern Farmers

Michelle DePinto
 March 29, 2013

Southern Farmers: The Real Gangsters of Prohibition

Schmitt grew up cooking moonshine. His grandfather taught his father, and his father taught his brother. Every August, after the hay was in and before the corn was ready to harvest, Schmitt’s father set up the still.”1

White lightning, hooch, mountain dew- Americans have been drinking moonshine since they figured out how to make it. Recently, moonshine has been entering mainstream entertainment through reality television shows like Discovery Channels “Moonshiners” and top charted movies such as Lawless. Although moonshine was consumed by people all over the United States, it is predominantly a southern commodity. In the 1920s and 1930s moonshine production and consumption was heightened due to Prohibition. While history has glamorized the consumption of this illegal drink through speakeasies and gangsters, it is important to consider the makers of moonshine, the southern farmers who had been, and continue to, produce moonshine for themselves and a nation that has always demanded alcohol. In a time when class and social status meant everything, the illegal use of moonshine was a secret connection working men and women of the north and south shared. Working class men loved to drink, upper class men loved to make money, and southern farmers loved making moonshine. It wasn’t always a smooth operation but southern farmers, who otherwise would never have made history, became heroic during this time when states were going dry and the federal government had decided to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. The Southern farmers involved in producing, selling, and consuming moonshine, as well as those who were part of the fight against it, formed an alternate working class of the early twentieth century.

Prohibition was the United States government’s attempt in to ban alcohol and improve the lives of Americans. The desire for a dry nation came from the increase in domestic abuse along with other crimes that were occurring in the cities and urban areas. At this time, women began fighting for their right to vote, among other things. Since women were overwhelmingly the victims of domestic abuse, they had a strong interest in getting prohibition passed. Religion also played a big role in the anti-alcohol sentiment. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union along with the Anti-Saloon League were the driving forces behind the eventual passage of the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution which was ratified on January 16, 1919. There had been previous attempts at prohibition in the previous century but it was always decided that temperance regulations would be left up to state and local governments. The Eighteenth Amendment officially prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol.2Arguably, Prohibition backfired as a strategy because moonshining, the illegal distillation of whiskey, then reached its peak. 3 The resulting boom of illegal alcohol making, along with the many crimes that came along with it, was never anticipated by the government.
Southern farmers became the heart of moonshine production in the 1920s and 1930s. Around the same time that prohibition went into effect, farmers were experiencing a substantial decline in the price of cotton. Overproduction of crops made prices fluctuate and tenant farmers had to worry about staying with their farms. To supplement their income, many of these farmers turned to moonshining. Homemade whiskey making was a common practice all over the nation. Alcohol continued to be in high demand, and it was almost a lucky break for the farmers that the government was banning such a desired commodity at this time. Southern farmers capitalized on this need since they had the space, materials, and expertise in the art of moonshining.
Isolated rural areas in the southern mountainous states were prime areas of moonshine production. Appalachia, as it is known, consists of all the states along the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. This area was perfect for moonshining for a few different reasons. First, it was isolated and open terrain; there was nothing else to do if there was no farming to be done. “Moonshining was a good way to make a little extra money in a cash-poor, subsistence farming economy.”4 In between harvests, there was little to do in these areas since there was not a strong sense of community. The farmers all lived on their isolated land and devoted most of their time to their crops. When the seasons ended they resorted to moonshine, for their own use as well as a supplemental income for the lack of harvested crops. Another popular reason for moonshining in these states was the access to caves in the mountains. Moonshining got its name from the practice of making the whiskey at night when the smoke from the stills could not be seen. Caves were another way for people to make and, more importantly, hide their moonshine from neighbors and law enforcement. Caves provided a sheltered and hidden work place, and contained a source of water, a main ingredient in moonshine.5
Moonshining became its own secret industry during Prohibition. It was usually a family effort to become part of the moonshining business, mostly because families did not have ties to anyone else in the community and needed to rely on each other. The men usually worked the stills and the women kept an eye on law enforcement. If a person’s, or family’s, recipe and technique produced a better- tasting drink then another, the demand for it went up. A typical recipe included water, rye or corn, sugar, and yeast. The mixture had to be mixed together then left to ferment into a mash, then later boiled. The result was a clear liquid, which was the moonshine.6 The recipes were passed down through the generations, proving how this practice had become embedded in Southern life for decades.
During Prohibition, the quality of moonshine was not as important as the actual production of the drink, which was very similar to factory work in the north. Moonshiners cut corners so they could speed up the process of bottling and shipping the liquor faster, just like how the introduction of Taylorism in the factories made the workers work as fast as possible. There was a chain of people who were involved in getting the finished product to the cities where the demand was highest. After being bottled, the moonshine had to be transported to cities. Once it arrived it was sold to a bootlegger for a price. He then would sell it to speakeasies, individuals such as city officials and law makers, or other prominent people in society like business owners, among anyone else who was interested and could afford to pay the price. The fact that people from all different classes indulged in drinking illegal moonshine showed how vital the production was, even if it was illegal. If there were people willing to pay the increased prices of moonshine, the farmers in the south were not going to stop producing it until their stills were taken or they were put in jail.
Throughout this whole process there were government officials who were trying to stop this process by raiding still sites and arresting anyone caught in possession or in the act of producing illegal moonshine. “Federal revenuers also knew the region’s reputation, and their late-night raids shut down some stills. But production in the area continued for years, and the moonshiners often outsmarted the law” Writes Jay Barnes in his article “The Rise and Fall of a Moonshine Capital”.7 The revenuers made up an entire sector of the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms unit of the treasury. This was very similar to the way legal commodities that were being processed and shipped across the country were regulated by the government. The only difference was that the revenuers were looking for criminals.
Moonshining provided a brief period of relief to struggling southern farmers during the Prohibition era. The production, sale, and consumption of this illegal liquor was taken on by an alternate working class that was never fully recognized. In fact, this working class sought to keep itself a secret from authorities. In 1933 Prohibition was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment, which greatly reduced the need for illegal moonshine production. Not only did moonshine create its own working class, but it also affected the preexisting classes who made up the clientele basis. The popular culture of the flappers of the “Roaring Twenties” or gangsters like Al Capone get most of the historical glory of the 1920s and 1930s, when it was really southern farmers who risked their livelihoods making an illicit commodity. Moonshine continues to be produced throughout the United States. Although it is a fading tradition due to the easy access of liquor in everyday life, moonshining and the Southern working class farmers who performed it retain a rich historical legacy.

1 Kyle Clayton, “The Last Of The Moonshiners Tell Their Stories”, Indiana Public Media, (http://indianapublicmedia.org/news/moonshiners-stories-43623/) accessed on March 26, 2013

2 The Charters of Freedom, “A New World is At Hand”, (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html#180), accessed March 24, 2013,

3 Bill O'Neal, "MOONSHINING," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jbm01), accessed March 24, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

4 Jason Sumich, “It's All Legal Until You Get Caught: Moonshining in the Southern Appalachians” Appalachian State University Department of Anthropology, (http://anthro.appstate.edu/field-schools/papers/2007/sumich­) accessed March 24, 2013

5 Joseph C. Douglas, “MINERS AND MOONSHINERS: HISTORIC INDUSTRIAL USES OF TENNESSEE CAVES”, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, (http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.cc.stonybrook.edu/stable/20708162?seq=9&Search=yes&searchText=Moonshine&searchText=South&searchText=1920s&list=show&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DMoonshine%2B1920s%2BUS%2BSouth%26Search%3DSearch%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3DMoonshine%2B1920s%2BUS%26hp%3D25%26acc%3Don%26aori%3Da%26wc%3Don%26fc%3Doff&prevSearch=&resultsServiceName=null) accessed March 24, 2013

6 Moonshine- Blur Ridge Style, “Building the Moonshine Industry” (http://www.blueridgeinstitute.org/moonshine/building_the_moonshiner_industry.html) accessed March 25, 2013

7 Jay Barnes, “The Rise and Fall of a Moonshine Capital”, (http://www.ourstate.com/moonshine-capital/) accessed on March 24, 2013

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