They come to his house and got him out of bed, but he never would tell on me. That was back in ' They took him and went over to the still. We was in a cave at that time. They took the two stills and him and headed for Cape Girardeau. I went down the next day and got him out on bond and they had his trial. I told him I was taking the hard part of it. I paid the fine and he just had to lay out the jail sentence. Art thinks there was probably more whiskey made during prohibition than ever before. During that period it was illegal to make or sell whiskey even if it was for strictly personal use.
Today it is illegal to own a still. In spite of the ban on whiskey, there's always been a lively market, even ,during the depression. In the Ozarks the drought of and '36 hurt people more than the depression because most people raised their living on farms. Those who lived on the poor upland farms that wouldn't raise anything in the dry years had no way of making a living, or even growing enough to eat. With families to support, some turned to making whiskey. We worked hard. It was the way we made our living. We sold to anybody that had money. We hauled most of our whiskey to St. We had a man that come down hunting and fishing and we got to selling him a little bit of whiskey.
He'd take five gallon back with him every time he was down. Finally he told us, "Now boys, if you folks'll haul it into St. Louis, I'll handle sixty gallons every two weeks. We just took that seat out and threw it away. Three twenty gallon kegs set in there just right. We'd put them in there and lock that down and go to St. The man had a bakery shop up there and he had a garage under it.
We'd just drive up there, drive under the garage and unload our whiskey, then we'd get out other barrels and come on back. Course, he give us a dollar extra on the gallon for delivering it into the city, which was a lot of money at that time. We sold it for three dollars a gallon down here where they took it from the keg.
We made lots of good money. There was always a market for whiskey. People used to leave the moonshiners alone. Everyone minded his own business. People didn't want to cause you no trouble or nothing. They was trying to make a living and we was trying to make a living, so they'd just leave us alone. The raids and arrests of many moonshiners shows the strictness of some government officials. In the period between and , at least 5, stills were seized by federal authorities in Missouri and Arkansas alone. The illegal making of whiskey used to be a much bigger problem then now.
Over 2, of those stills mentioned were seized between and However, the punishments then were not as severe. Now the sentence is up to three years in prison. Some revenuers were mean and insulting. Grover Ballard told this story.
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The revenue man was pretty mean and a lot of folks here didn't believe in all this regulation. They thought you could make all the whiskey you wanted, all you had to have was a bushel of corn to get you a gallon of whiskey. The feller was gone one day and he had a wild bunch of kids. These two revenue men come to his house--I guess they was smart ducks--and they asked where he was at.
The kids told them their daddy was gone. They asked them when he'd come back and the wife told them she didn't know about what time that would be. So they took out these handcuffs and showed them to the kids and told them they'd have them on their daddy afore night. Then his wife got them some dinner and they made fun of the food. They left and went over to the neighbors. Of course, the feller come home, and it made him so damn mad, he just walked over there, throwed the door open and said, 'Halt, you son-of-a-b I'll shoot you!
And this other one, he run up the stairs. I seen this stairway. Dad had told me all this when I was a boy, you see, so I went down there and hit was still there. I looked at it. There wasntt no railroads up here then and the revenuers come up here on them boats, or I guess they'd of killed him. Of course, the revenuers got after him and of course everybody was fer him. There wasn't no transportation like it is now.
No telephones or nothing, so they brought a bunch of dogs down there--blood hounds. And by God, they put them blood hounds on that feller's track. He knowed that river, he lived right there on it, the Big Niangua. There's a big sycamore there that was holler, and it had washed up and was in the water. There was a big holler place in it where it stuck out of the water only you couldn't tell it.
I don't know this to be a fact, but I guess it was so, they told it. The feller dived in under there.
New movie focuses on WNC moonshiner Popcorn Sutton
Then he crawled in there up to where he'd get air. They said them blood hounds swum all around that. The revenuers thought he'd went down the river in a boat. Never did get him. No, they never did get him. Although some revenuers were strict and hard nosed, some were lenient. Here's a portion of some letters sent to a government official informing them of moonshining activity.
Art told us about a cooperative sheriff of his county. I tell you there just wasn't very many people that lived around up there. It was wild country and everybody knew we was making whiskey, but they knowed we had a good rig, that we wasn't gonna poison nobody, that we were gonna make everybody happy, so they just let us go. Why we had a sheriff down here at that time who knowed we was making whiskey, but hell, we'd give him five gallon a month. He wouldn't bother us. A bunch of good women would go down there and tell him we were making whiskey up there on the river.
Well, he'd send us word, then he'd get four or five deputies down there and they'd come up there and, hell, nothing around. Then they'd come back and tell them, "You was mistaken. There wasn't nobody making whiskey up there. Come election time we'd put out a lot of whiskey to get him elected again. We heard of another man who made whiskey during the depression.
The revenuers came driving a car up the old dirt road looking for his house. They met him on the road and asked him, "We're looking for a man named Johnson. Do you know where he lives? His wife was making a gooseberry pie and she greeted the men.
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She fed them pie and coffee while they visited. The still was upstairs. The revenuers asked Johnson if he made whiskey. On getting a negative answer the men left.
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They didn't think anyone that nice could be making moonshine! Another time different officials came. This time Johnson had his still under the house. The trap door to get there was hidden by the iron cook stove that set on it. Johnson had to move the stove to get to the still. He also kept some of the jars and supplies upstairs above the stove. There was a moveable piece of ceiling above the stove to get to the jars. A revenuer saw that, stepped up to reach his hand around. He didn't get up high enough to look in. The jars were back far enough that he didn't feel them.
Standing there by his still every day that is doesn't rain all Art has to do is tend his fire occasionally, keep his pipe lit and spin yarns. A good sister come down and told me it was a sin to make whiskey on Sunday. She said it should all be dumped in the river. Hell, I agreed with her. She went back up to the church, and do you know the first song she wanted to sing? One time there was an ant here when I was emptying the jug and he got a taste. He ran out of here and jumped on a snake and nearly choked it to death.
Another time a squirrel got some of it. There was a tree with a knot on it just over there. That squirrel tried to run up it backwards. You ought to 'ye seen that. We run the whiskey out into a gallon fruit jar. That's how I got this ridge across my nose--from drinking out of a fruit jar. When I used to make moonshine, I could always tell who drunk by the ridge across his nose.
One time when I was in town I saw a man with a ridge across his nose and I asked him if he'd like to buy some good whiskey.
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He said he was a preacher and when I asked him about the ridge on his nose, he said he had just left his glasses at home. We have a barrel there. You can stoop over and smell the whiskey. There was an old gal the other day who stooped over smelling it and a damn butterfly flew in there. He got a little bill full of that whiskey. He got to wabbling around as he leaves there and that gal stooped over to smell and that butterfly got up her dress tail and liked to tickled her to death. When I used to be a moonshiner, I had a batch ready to run off, but my hay needed to be put up.
I went up to the still and I slipped a pint in my hip pocket. Every time I passed a tumble bug I give him a little drink. You know when I got back to the barn that night them tumble bugs had rolled every bit of that hay right down to the barn. Drink about half a pint of this whiskey and get bit by a snake and, hell, it'll be dead in thirty minutes.
To the other employees at Alley Spring, Art is jokingly known as "our dirty old man", but he makes excellent corn whiskey. Although we don't suggest you try this recipe, here are his directions. To make corn whiskey you need fifty pounds of corn chops, fifty pounds of sugar and one package of yeast. You put this in a fifty-five gallon wooden white oak barrel with forty gallons of water.
You don't use much yeast, just a little bit to start it. That's just to rush up the process more. Now when it's right hot weather you really don't have to use the yeast. It'll go ahead and make without it. But when it's cool you need the yeast to start it fermenting, then your grain and sugar'll pick it up. It'll work about three days, working that grain to the top while it's fermenting.
Gettin' Drunk and Fallin' Down
When it gets all the alcyhol worked out of your sugar and grain, it'll quit working and the grain will all go to the bottom. Then it's ready to run through the still. To keep the mash warm enough in the winter for it to ferment, Art and many other moonshiners used caves that kept an even temperature as well as providing running water and a hiding place. Sometimes the barrels were buried in sawdust for warmth. The fermented mash is like home brew. Some people like it and drink it without distilling out the alcohol. To distill the alcohol, You just dip the water offen your grain and you pour it in the cooker.
You seal the top of the lid up there tight so you won't lose none of the steam. You seal it with doughjust flour and water--smear it around there and then as the cooker heats up, it cooks that dough. Then if you get right drunk and need something to eat, why you can jerk yourself off a piece of that dough and eat it. We most generally put a rag around the lid there first, then smear that dough on the rag and cook it there. The eighty-nine minute film follows Sutton over the last ten years of his life, as he rose from a local Maggie Valley character to the status of folk hero.
After being sentenced to federal prison term on charges relating to the moonshine trade, Sutton committed suicide in In , Hank Williams, Jr. The only narration in "Popcorn Sutton -- A Hell of Life" is provided by Sutton himself, as he describes his life with characteristic candor and dark humor. Most importantly, to Hutcheson, "it reveals him as both a showman and an equally gifted craftsman. The "dancing outlaw" Jesco White, and many other mountain characters, also make an appearance in Sutton's adventures, and the film features a soundtrack by North Carolina musicians Dana and Susan Robinson, Texas-based Grifters and Shills, alt roots rockers Patty Hurst Shifter, and many others.
The DVD will be available at area retailers - a list of retailers is online at www.