By Hardy Jackson
Get you a copper kettle
Get you a copper coil
Fill it with new, fresh corn mash
And nevermore you’ll toil “Copper Kettle”
Early American Folk Song
Though that could have been written by, and probably was sung by, folks who lived most anywhere in the state. However, it seems to me that it would have been sung best in the hunk of Alabama conveniently located to supply three major market centers – Birmingham, Atlanta and Chattanooga – with a commodity that was much in demand.
Call it the “moonshine triangle.”
Now, I could spend a lot of time explaining the prohibitionary urges that caused legal liquor to be unavailable or overly expensive in those cities, but the point is that there was a need, or at least a desire, and scores of Alabamians were ready and willing to meet it.
To the untrained eye, the fillers of this need appeared to be little more than hardscrabble farm folks who (according to one observer) might “plow a little, hunt a little, fish a little, but mainly passed their time on their backsides in the shade of a tree, communing with their hounds and a jug of what, with a fine feeling for words, had been named ‘bust-head’.”
But where do you think they got it – that poetic product? They made it.
Manufactured it locally and marketed it to the three corners of the moonshine triangle.
“Shine,” “Shinny,” “likker,” “corn,” “pop-skull,” “bust-head.” All the same thing and all part of what was an honorable tradition in the hills and hollows. It was a way for poor folks to make money. Cotton was for valley farmers with good bottom land. Branch- heads and ridge-runners grew corn, which didn’t sell for much unless you created from it what William Faulkner described as “that brown liquor” into which “those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled.”
Only sometimes it wasn’t brown. It was clear, like water, “white lightening,” and you didn’t know what it was until you drank it. “Smooth as a breeze goin’ down,” an authority told an interviewer back in the 1930s, “an’ lightnin’ crossed with a hurrycane in your stummick.”
And as such, it often did damage to those “fine fierce instants” Faulkner wrote about. Some distillers put in snake heads to give it bite, horseshoes and nails for iron, and later, when there were automobiles, cost cutters without respect for custom or consumer condensed the steam in radiators instead of copper coils and lead poisoned the product.
“Moonshine Kills,” the billboard read.
But, back in prohibition days, back in the 1920s and 30s, consumers were not so particular. The money was good, and country folks decided that despite politicians who cited the Constitution, preachers who cited scripture, and guardians of public morals who clicked their collective tongues, it was worth the risk.
Thus was born and nurtured the underground economy that kept food on many a table up in the moonshine triangle.
The distiller made the “shine” and either sold it to local customers (making himself both the manufacturer and distributor) or sold it to a middle man, the “bootlegger,” who carried it to the larger urban markets.
Capitalists to the core.
One of these entrepreneurs was Willie Bass who, with his partner Son Capp, had a still on a creek off the Coosa River. When they ran off a batch they waited till night then took it down and across to the west side where a truck from Birmingham waited. “Me an’ Son’d unload th’ likker,” Bass later recalled, “an’ then one of th’ men’d stick some bills in one of our han’s. It’d be dark, an’ we wouldn’t count it till we got back to th’ river, but we never was beat.”
Honest men in an illegal business.
Opinions differ as to just what moonshining was all about. Chamber of Commerce types, out to promote their communities as law abiding and progressive, considered whiskey makers (and whiskey drinkers) as one more obstacle to be overcome.
Church folk brought down the Bible on the evils of drink, even going so far as to swear that the water was changed into grape juice at the wedding in Cana. And the Federal Government, which was not well thought of anyway, confirmed its reputation as an interferer and intruder when it sent word that its agents, “revenoors,” would bust up any still they found.
But it didn’t matter.
Moonshiners – hunted for in the hollows, prayed for in the pulpits, and criticized by good citizens – thumbed their noses at authority just as rural renegades have always done. Yet in their own way, they were also solid citizens. Swap a coat and tie for the overalls they wore, clean them up a bit, smooth out their language, and it would be hard to tell them from your regular Rotarian.
Like any businessman they measured cost against gain, took acceptable risks, and produced a product which they sold at a fair price and a profit.
As for quality control, to keep out the “rot gut” that threatened their reputation and the health of their customers, moonshiners judged their product by the tried and true “just right” standard, which was explained by an old fellow in Cleburne County who was given a pint of “shine” by his boss – as a reward for services rendered. Tossing back a swig the worker pronounced it “jest right.”
“What do you mean,” the boss asked.
“Well,” came the reply, “if it was any better you’d have kept it for yourself. And if it was any worse, I couldn’t of drunk it.”
Might not pass the FDA, but it worked just fine among the folks.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.