Hiking trail tells tales of moonshining era

Published May 30, 2007

LAUREL HILL - Tracy Curenton never thought a hiking trail she'd blazed into the woods behind the family's home would lead to a historical discovery.

But during a family after-dinner holiday walk, her cousin, Marianna resident Don Kelly, realized the trail was near a moonshine still he'd stumbled on four decades ago.

They ambled onto the neighbor's property and found a large vat and eight 55-gallon drums used for fermenting rye or wheat mash. All had been perforated by state beverage agents' axes in the mid 1960s.

Moonshining "was not an uncommon activity" in the region, said Jeanette Henderson, curator of the Baker Block Museum. "Often, that's what people did to supplement their incomes."

On Jan. 16, 1920, prohibition went into force, forbidding the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic liquors except for medicinal and sacramental purposes. Then, in 1929, the crash of the stock market ushered in the Great Depression. Both events contributed significantly to the rise of bootlegging in the Panhandle.

Some prominent area businessmen of the time were moonshine dealers, Henderson said. Small-family still operators sometimes held unwritten contracts to produce and sell their liquor to the dealers.

The region's close-knit family ties complicated enforcement.

Federal and state alcohol agents would come to town to enforce prohibition and, upon the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, tax laws. Seeking cooperation with local law enforcement, they'd plan raids. This often alerted deputies to warn still operators.

Forewarned, the moonshiners would "leave some old pots and pans around an old still for the sheriff and revenuers to whump up, " Martha said. "But they'd take the important parts like coils and hoses farther down the creek and set up a still in a new location."

The availability of inexpensive liquor put most family bootlegging entrepreneurs out of business by the mid 1960s. "People doing it weren't exactly ostracized by the other citizens, " Kelly said. "Maybe they were thought of a little bit as rogues, but that's about it."