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Murder and Mountain Justice in the Moonshine Capital of the World: An interview with author Phillip Gibbs Pt. 2
Franklin County, Virginia is notorious for its moonshine legacy. The county's history is not a fairy tale, but a saga of blood and fire. The Scots-Irish settlers who came to its harsh mountains brought with them a fierce spirit of independence and resistance to authority. They made moonshine not only for profit, but also for pride and identity. During the Prohibition era, the county became a hotbed of illegal liquor production and distribution, attracting the attention of federal agents and rival bootleggers. The violence did not end with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, as moonshine and drugs continued to fuel conflicts and crimes in the region. The year 1978 was especially gruesome, with nine murders related to the illicit trade. Phillip Andrew Gibbs, a historian and native of Virginia, recounts the events of that dreadful year and the historical context behind them.
I've actually had great demand for the book. I just did a two-week book tour through Virginia, and I brought books with me. And of course, the venues had books, but we ran out of books and I had to keep reordering.
Yeah, right. I was surprised. I showed up at the very first book signing. It's both a little program and book signing in Bassett, Virginia. Got there about 10 minutes before show time, and I saw all these people filing into the Bassett Historical Center. I was thinking, "What's going on here? Where am I going to do my little program?"
And so, I'm excited about doing future book signings in Virginia. A lot of the stores want me to come back. And so, I'm planning another trip in September, and probably also, in November. Of course, the book hasn't been out that long. It was released since July 17th.
Well, that is a total joy. And you have written a volume which I think speaks very deeply to the folks in that region in particular. I mean, all up and down the Blue Ridge, you have stories and tales and family connections to the kinds of things that you're writing about.
But before we actually get to the book itself, I want to spend a minute asking about you and your background, because it is so relevant to what you write about. I mean, you are a native of the region. You and your family have grown up in the South, and as importantly, your ancestors have deep, deep ties to the region.
Well, again, my family came over from Northern Ireland in the 1720s, '30s, and '40s. And like so many of the other folks in the region, at least those who settled the western sections of Franklin County as well as the mountains of the Blue Ridge, these were Scots-Irish.
And yeah, the Woods, the Williams, the Fergusons and others who are my ancestors along even with my daddy's ancestors. My daddy was not from Franklin County. He was actually from Yancey County, North Carolina.
Which is as deep in the mountains as you can get, because that's where Mount Mitchell's located, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. That's where all the Gibsons are from that area. And like my mother's family, Scots-Irish, about as Scottish as we can get.
But yeah, my family, they were all farmers. My mother's family here specifically talking about my Granddaddy Woods and also, my Granddaddy Williams. They were farmers, and they eked out a living in Franklin County knows Callaway and Farnham up on the mountain.
And they didn't have a lot. I mean, they lived in many ways, just like their ancestors. I mean, things didn't change that much for people in the mountains. You had all this electricity and indoor plumbing and all of this in some of the towns, and people had telephones.
My granddaddy could not read or write. And my granny only had maybe three years of education that she got from a little school that had been built by a Philanthropist there in the mountains for the mountain children.
So, what I'm describing to you is that here we got people that, again, things hadn't changed much for them. I mean, really, they were living like their Scots-Irish ancestors. Of course, there were a lot of people in the south again, who lived like that in the deep south as well as the mountains.
All it takes is picking up the phone sometimes and calling your daddy, or maybe calling a grandparent and asking about what it was like when they were growing up to recognize that that level of subsistence living was still very near to us all here in the south.
And he grew up pulling rocks from dirt. I mean, he called himself a dirt farmer, a rock farmer, because you had to farm rocks before you could actually put anything else in the ground. And you did that by hand.
Well, it's interesting you say that. I spent a better part of my childhood getting rocks out of the garden. Now, we did not have a farm. I worked on a farm in the community. My mother, when she married my daddy — well, my daddy got a job working in a furniture factory.
And so, we didn't actually have a farm. But like I said, that's the only job I knew as a child was working on all the area farms, getting up hay, or cleaning out barns, or putting up fences or what have you. That's what I did when I was growing up.
I mean, when she had to get water, they had to go down to the spring. They didn't have a well. A well was a luxury for most people. They went down to the spring, they had a little spring box or a little house. They put their eggs and butter and their milk to keep it cool. But can you imagine that?
I mean, and having a wood stove, I mean, you had to cook on. I mean, cooking a meal was a major production. And really for us, it's so simple with microwaves and air fryers rather, and ovens. My goodness.
So, my mother told me lots and lots of stories about my granddaddy. And of course, daddy's granddaddy made liquor like a lot of folks in the '20s. Carried on a tradition that was brought over by the Scots-Irish.
And I became fascinated, this is why I became a historian, really because my parents were very much older than most parents. And that we always had my granny was living with us or sometimes we had Granny Gibbs living with us.
I think one of the reasons that this is so pertinent to what you're writing about is we can talk all day long and have fun with the notion of moonshine, as that's why they invented NASCAR, and that kind of stuff. And those conversations can be had.
But I think on a much more realist note, it's important to recognize that when folks were making shine in the early part of the 20th century, and suddenly it became illegal under prohibition, that emergence of an underground trade, or the black market, or the illegal trade in it, because there was such a demand, we have to recognize that shine was a way out of some of this deep poverty that folks had been living in for a long time.
Now, we're going to talk about some crooks and villains, but I think it's important to recognize upfront that for folks like your ancestors and so many people's ancestors in that region, the politics of shine were much more complicated than just kind of playing cat and mouse with the law. You know what I mean?
It was. My granddaddy, I don't think he really made much liquor before prohibition, but just as you said, when prohibition was implemented, it was a gift. It was just as you said, a way out for so many people, a way to supplement their income.
I mean, my granddaddy didn't make that much. He made enough just to supplement his income. And got caught, spent maybe a night or two in jail. But that was it. I mean, jail being the authorities were somewhat sympathetic to the moonshiners.
And we're talking about even Commonwealth's attorneys and others. That there's just sort of a given that, “Let's not worry too much about it. These old boys are just trying to make a living. It's something that they've been doing for years and years and years. And it's a tradition. They take great pride in what they make.” But yeah, they were making more money during that time.
But what's so interesting though, is that even after prohibition, they continue making it. And there's still a demand for it, even after there's legal alcohol. So, that in itself is an interesting thing.
Well, I'm a professional musician, so I'm often, gigs. I have some folks they'll ask me they know that I could get liquor, Virginia liquor that is. Good mountain liquor. And they know it's a lot better than what they get down here. Largely because of the quality of the water in those mountain streams.
Well, tell us a little bit about the product itself, because you write in your book that there are of course, many different varieties depending on the source of the water and the particular distillation process, the quality of the copper that somebody might use, whether it's in their kitchen and so forth.
I thought it was also, interesting that you wrote that some producers did not even drink their own product. They only sold it. They viewed it as simply a commodity to produce and sell, not actually to sample themselves.
Yeah. I think you're actually referring to one moonshiner, Homer Philpott, who made a lot of money in the early 1900s into prohibition from making liquor. But he said that it was not for drinking, it was for selling.
But it is true that there are those who just recognized it as it's an enterprise, brings money to the home. And I've seen what it's done to other folks, I'm going to stay away from it. Because through what they're making, and still make, is a hundred proof, maybe sometimes-
Suffering some consequences for your garden variety. You're kind of supermarket shelf stuff is going to be 40% by volume. But when shine gets up into that 50 and 60% territory, you got to be real careful. And you can't even really dilute it down to much success. It just hurts, it just hurts.
Well, I'll tell you right now, the liquor made in Franklin County, I certainly had my share of it, and it's quite smooth. And that's the insidious nature of it. That it's so smooth. And I've seen grown men just fall down after having only a few drinks because it creeps up on you.
Yeah. I would point out that generally, the folks who came over to Franklin County and the Blue Ridge again, these Scots, Scots-Irish, they initially brought what we call turnip stills. That they were smaller stills that resembled a turnip ball.
And they were fashioned in such a way that they could easily be transported. Because in Northern Ireland and also, in the lowlands of Scotland and the northern borderlands of England, you had people, of course, charged with collecting revenue, taxes.
But then we get into the 1960s, (I'm leaping ahead, understand) but then you have people who, as you just said, are very much about quantity, mass production. And so, they start using what we call submarine stills.
Because the old days, the preferred way of doing this was to have a mash box where you had your corn and sugar and all that. And of course, you create what's kind of a beer. And then of course, that's the still, but that was separate. It's not actually in the still.
Well, the submarine stills were about just speeding up the process and cooking it all in that one pot. And of course, many people felt that kind of liquor was not very good. And they stewed that approach.
But yeah, you get to the '60s and the '70s, Franklin County, I mean, you would have operations with 6 or 7, 400, 500 gallon stills just lined up. And as you said earlier, they came up with ways to fool revenuers. I'm not sure if you recall it in the book, but the cemetery still.
I loved it. I think that might have been one of my absolute favorite parts of the whole book. I remember staring at that photograph by Morris Stevenson, and we'll come back to Stevenson in a bit. But staring at that photograph thinking these guys are ... I mean, it's clever. It's real clever.
Well, there are actually some that claimed that there were stills that were put in churches or hidden around churches and no one told on them. And so, of course, people might think, “Well, that's the last place you would look for still, the first Baptist Church.”
So, the real question is though this amazing moment when you take a look at the cemetery stills? I did have to ask you about one specific moment because ... and I might've read it wrong, Phil. I don't think I did, but I just felt compelled to double check with you on this.
You describe a barrel that was placed not just on an exhumed coffin, but on the actual cadaver. Is that right? There's some situation where they had a barrel with a spigot and it had shine in it, and you actually went to the grave to go and get your tipple. I mean, wait, now what?
These were not ignorant, dumb people at all. They were incredibly bright. They had a long history of figuring out how to survive and how to allude the authorities. And so, yeah, all that was passed down. But again, these folks are very, very bright, very creative.
Yep. Well, insofar as they would've passed all of the chemistry tests anybody could have offered them with flying colors, there is this element of risk involved, and there is an element of once prohibition enters into effect, the landscape changes.
And we do need to talk just a little bit about the prohibition agents and the dance of busting up stills, trying to figure out where they are, enforcing the law which characterized hundreds of miles of the Blue Ridge.
I mean, it was this massive area which federal agents had to patrol and understand in order to police and try to enforce the law. Whether you believe that the law was right or wrong in that instance is irrelevant here.
I think what I want to ask you, Phil, and this is a hard question, but it comes directly from your book. Is, I mean, you write that Franklin County, as far as the prohibition efforts went, was one of the single most violent counties for interactions between law and moonshine makers in the entire country.
And there were so many folks who ended up being shot, stabbed, killed, thrown off cliffs, dynamited, whatever it was. And for some reason, Franklin County was this kind of epicenter of violence. Why was that? What possible explanation is there for that?
Well, first, I do want to clear up something that you said. Generally, when you get to the 1920s and '30s, the moonshiners did not really kill (that was even later on) revenue officers or others as long as they were just simply boys in the county who were doing their job.
And of course, anyone who told on a moonshiner could risk getting shot. There are episodes where you might have someone who was well known to be an informant, that they could end up dead. In fact, you had a lot of vigilantism in the county.
And of course, you're asking me about the violence. Well, the thing is, there was a belief on the part of folks in the county. And also, it is something, I think it's very pronounced in Scotch Irish tradition, and that is defending your livelihood, defending your family, defending your personal honor.
They were what were called Old Order German Baptists, who still in some ways find them there in the county, who wear the clothes that you would associate with the Amish. And they're very, very prominent dairy farmers. But they're very different people, pacifists.
So, the people actually that were engaged in the violence, I mean, I have to confess, they are the Scots-Irish. A lot of it has to do what just described, certain notions of honor, property rights, again, family. I mean, there's a quickness to resort to violence at times for over things that we will be willing to overlook.
And to go back to the very first chapter of the book entitled A Year for Murder, that was the issue that led to the murder of Terry Flora by a notorious moonshiner who had on numerous occasions, gotten in fights over somebody supposedly trespassing his property.
I mean, in some of these signings, I've tried to give people illustration of this violence that was rife in the south largely because of this culture of honor. You may know the famous story of Andrew Jackson.
But he said that he was going to kill this man, this Charles Dickinson, and there were no if, ands, or buts about it. “I'm going to do this because this man needs killing.” And so, that's an illustration of this. He goes on to be president of the United States.
That attitude, he has it coming. He needs killing. I'm going to settle this my own way. That runs like a bloody thread throughout the whole of your book. There are so many individuals who end up on the wrong side of a revolver because somebody else thought that was the only way to solve the problem.
The last question I have for you regarding the overall culture of so moonshine in that part of the Blue Ridge, is where do you draw the line between someone legitimately trying to protect their family and doing so with a sincere heart and a kind of systematized paranoia that everybody out there is an enemy or suspect in some way? Because it seems like from your account, that's a pretty thin line.
Yes, it could be. And it was in many cases. But well, again, my granddaddy, (just using him as an example) he was a man who he had a temper, but he was not a violent man. And he made what liquor he made to help his family.
And I do get concerned about ... again, in writing the book, there's so much violence that appears in it. And I do not want to stereotype people. But the thing is, stereotypes endure largely because there's always some element of truth to them.
And these things happened. I mean, people you would say, “My God, I mean, it's one thing to make liquor, but it's another thing to engage in this vigilantism and this willingness just to ambush somebody and just settle these conflicts with violence.”
But it was true that it was unthinkable in the Scots-Irish tradition to sue somebody, to go to court for defamation of character or some other reason. You handle it yourself. You make your own justice.
And everything I write in this book, by the way, is documented. I hope you did recognize that. I would make sure that the papers I consulted, the interviews, the court documents. I want to make sure that people understand this is supported by facts.
But we also, have to understand too, that most of the people in Franklin County were not violent. Most of these people were just good, hardworking folks who tried to raise their kids the best way and teach them some strong values of community and the importance of connection to land, to place and all of that.
But you do have that other element, and it tend to be in the western sections of the county where the Scots-Irish settled, and of course, where you had moonshining going on. That's where you found most of the violence. One of the things that I appreciate most about your book, Phil, is the fact that you, I'm not trying to make a pun here, shine a light on the actual grittiness of it and the realism of it.
And it's not a cartoon account of the struggles that people were going through in order to survive. And in some cases, coming into conflict with other folks who were just trying to survive. And it's a challenging account to read because there is so much suffering in it.