July 22, 2013
First they took away our NASCAR races, and now this.
Word has reached my Wilkes County news desk that Sevier County, Tenn., has taken to proclaiming itself as the Moonshine Capital of the World.
That’s got to give some pause to your vacation plans to take the kids to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, which is in Sevier.
Sevier is raising a Mason-jar toast after Tennessee made it easier for the locals to legally produce and market moonshine, and now they’ve got their hooch selling in stores there like Wal-Mart.
So, as many as a dozen moonshiners looking to get in on the action in Sevier have applied for licenses, according to the “Knoxville News Sentinel” newspaper. It looks like Gatlinburg is going to have more than Christus Gardens as an attraction.
“Can you really be the family-friendly tourist spot if you have six or seven moonshine distilleries along the route?” lamented “The Mountain Press” newspaper in Sevierville, the county seat.
So ladies, when your man surprises you by up and saying he wants to go to Dollywood for vacation, it may not be for Dolly.
Over the years we Wilkes Countians have put up with our county’s reputation as the Moonshine Capital of the World, as proclaimed in 1950 by the now defunct “The American Magazine,” though other locales in Appalachia have staked their claims to the title as well.
Wilkes’ reputation crystalized when New York City writer Tom Wolfe came here, hung around with Ingle Hollow bootlegger Junior Johnson - who subsequently won some attention as a NASCAR hall of famer - and then Wolfe wrote an iconic article for “Esquire” magazine in 1965. A 1973 movie based on the article spread the story.
Indeed, Wilkes did have a moonshine heyday starting in the 1920s with Prohibition and continuing into the 1950s, according to “Wikipedia,” the internet encyclopedia. I’ve heard my share of old stories over the years.
Here’s my favorite. Shortly after my uncle came home to Wilkes County from World War II, a friend asked to borrow his car one Saturday. My uncle didn’t think much of it. Back in the early post-war years not everybody had a car, and it was not that uncommon back then for someone to not have a car and a need to borrow one.
The friend returned the car to my uncle on Sunday afternoon. Not long afterward my uncle found out his friend had used the car to run a trunkload of ‘shine to Winston. My uncle laughed when he told me the story, but I bet he didn’t laugh when he first found out about it.
I heard that when they went into the hollows above Traphill in the 1960s to check out the land just purchased to start Stone Mountain State Park, they found the place full of old moonshine stills. Sometime later they even got Johnson to build a replica of a still for display in park’s visitor center.
Just last January I came across the remains of an old still when the Elkin Valley Trails Association went to Wells Knob to begin clearing out a walking trail through the woods there. They found and kept a couple of old, empty yeast cans.
However, the Wilkes trade in non-taxed, illegal corn liquor made under cover of night under the moon’s shine began falling on hard times.
First, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 brought in legal liquor as a competitor.
Next, sugar prices rose. And then Holly Farms, later Tyson, made chicken farming a legal alternative.
For those bent on illegal activity, marijuana-growing started in the 1970s and developed into an easier and more profitable alternative to moonshine. In recent times meth production has been introduced.
So moonshining has become passé here for the most part. The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Wilkesboro that rooted out area moonshining closed in the 1980s.
There have remained pockets of resistance. Wilkes County moonshine was clandestinely popular at NASCAR races for years, and may still be for all I know. And Johnson put his name on a legal brand of ‘shine called Midnight Moon starting in 2007.
I reported on this page in 2009 on a moonshine raid next to the old NASCAR speedway near North Wilkesboro. The seizure of 929 gallons was impressive even by old Wilkes standards.
The bust provided plenty of symbolism, as moonshine running is credited with setting the stage for the beginning of stock-car racing and NASCAR.
But now Wilkes appears to be turning over its moonshine crown to Rocky Top. “Time” magazine articles in May and June are trying to do for Sevier what “The American Magazine” and “Esquire” once did for Wilkes.
They can have that crown. I think most folks around here are uneasy with the title, anyway.
Instead, I like Wilkes as the Bluegrass Capital of the World better (thanks to MerleFest).
Take that, Sevier.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.