Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Moonshining History - By josh

One of our pals is doing some research for folks about the routes involved in the Ride For Lightning run coming up this October 15th & 16th. For those not in the know about the south that we know and love, read on. Its quite interesting to understand about our forefathers with their trials and tribulations, and how one item in particular has made the region quite infamous. Story by Josh...

Moonshining History

The "Revenge Run" that Tim and Ralph put on back in April was a good time, no doubt about it. What made it extra special was the fact that it revolved around the stomping grounds of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, one of the most fearsome pirates to ever swing a cutlass, swill rum, pinch the butt cheeks of saucy wenches anywhere, and generally give the finger to anything resembling any type of authority in his part of the Atlantic. The reason I knew about his level of bad assery (its a word, trust me) was that through four years of college, I managed to make it to a few classes while stuffing my hangover on the back burner. The classes I did manage to make usually pertained to History, and my favorites of those revolved around Pirates. So besides the good friends and swag I got on the last run, I got to finally see a bit of what Black beard called home.

On to the present, Tim and Ralph again decide to start up a run on the other side of the state up in the mountains a bit. Give it a theme, like the RR it had to have its own amount of kick assness ( Yes, "ass" is definitely one of the words in my verbal tool box. Not quite a hammer like "fuck", but probably more of socket wrench), and what better way to celebrate twisty roads and scenic vistas then by having a "Ride for Lightening."

It is pretty awesome if you think about it. A run to celebrate the spirit and essence of the Appalachia's captured in a mason jar. On further inspection, I realized I knew little about "'shine" and the folks who make it, besides the stereo-typical names associated with that type of enterprise, and that NASCAR can trace its roots back to moonshiners tear-assin' through the mountains evading the law. In wanting to use my research skills on a new subject, I thought it might be a good idea to give back to Tim and Ralph and kick some knowledge out to folks, like me who have no clue about "white lightening" and one of the most famous regions it comes from. So I cracked open a few books, J.E. Dabney's Mountain Spirits and Wilbur Millers Revenuers & Moonshiners and a few other sources. This is what I came up with.

To know about "Moonshiners" you have to go back to the very beginnings of this country before it could even be called such a thing. During the initial immigration push to populate this side of the pond between 1730-1780’s, the Scots-Irish out of Ulster left Ireland due to some messed up “rent” schemes. The majority of them pushed through the major ports of Boston, New York, and Baltimore to find decent farm land on the initial frontiers of Pennsylvania. Instead they were subjected to the same “rack-rent” schemes that caused them to seriously haul ass out of Ireland. They were still trying to escape the tyrannies being enforced on them from across the Atlantic and even the “civilized” trappings based along the coast. Think when your landlord screws you around during lease renewal time, only more of on a weekly basis. Leaving Pennsylvania, the Scots-Irish pushed west through the Cumberland Gap, and south down along the Appalachia.

Upon moving to areas like North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, these people found themselves having to hack a living from the land constantly dealing with toil, disease, weariness, and threat from natives, with nothing but their balls and gumption.They brought the skills of distillation along with them. I know after a day of getting my butt kicked by mother nature and everything else living in the woods, a few drops of the home brew would have definitely hit the spot.

Descriptions of these hardy people are varied and wide. One Dr. Benjamin Rush of the time, described the Scots-Irish farmers as a man who “…cannot bear to surrender up a single natural right for all the benefits of government, and therefore he abandons his little settlement and seeks retreat in the woods.” Years later Teddy Roosevelt asserted that “these Irish Presbyterians were a bold and hardy race is proved by their at once pushing past the settled regions and plunging into the wilderness as the leaders of advance.” They were considered by many to be the archetype of the American Frontiersman.

On the frontier the building block of the mountain community was the family farm. For the most part the farm was considered self sustaining. As on any farm most of the work was considered agriculture-centric, moon shining was just another part of business on the farm. As farming was so difficult, family and extended “kin’” were necessary for thriving in the wilderness. People would travel across mountains for trade and social interaction as well as agricultural support. This support net was usually relatively small. With the addition of “blood ties”, it would make a moonshiner’s network trustworthy and difficult to penetrate. This would prove highly beneficial as time went on and more settlers came into the area.

During the expansion down the Blue Ridge, distilling liquor became a way for landowners to provide a profitable means for paying property taxes; this was considered common knowledge amongst everyone throughout the colonies, and later the newly formed United States. Simple enough, right? Alexander Hamilton using this knowledge after the Revolutionary War was over, took a page right from the “redcoats” and instilled an excise tax of his own (how else were we gonna’ pay off 21 million dollars of war debt). This almost started a second revolution called the “Whiskey Rebellion” before the first revolution had barely been tucked in. Thomas Jefferson probably thought Al was a bit of an ass hat and decided to lift the tax; it would stay lifted for the next 50 years.

By 1862, another war was already raging. The “War of Northern Aggression” would not be kind to ‘shiners on both sides. Governors of most southern states knew the use of corn for liquid refreshment would have better uses for southern forces, and stated their displeasure as such. This did nothing to discount the ingenuity of the intrepid moonshiner as he would use anything that could be harvested to ‘still up a batch of moonshine. On the northern side, the renewed excise tax would have far longer lasting effects. The Act of July 1, would create the “Office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue.” Ain’t that some shit, the IRS? Can you believe that? All started just because some guys were making a little tipple. So pretty much it was out of hand from the beginning…….awesome.

With the end of the Civil war came Reconstruction and Industrialization. The resources found in the Appalachia were suddenly ripe for the plucking. As far as the moonshiners were concerned the Act of July 1, actually helped their profits. Just think about Northern Californias marijuana farmer and how much his profit will decrease should marijuana become legal for more than just people with a prescription. Moonshiner’s could find lucrative outlets in the company boomtowns that sprang up along rail spurs that hauled away the ore and lumber being plundered from the mountains. Industrialization did not just create a stronger need for ‘shine, it also created a desire for things only to be found at the expansive company stores; matches, printed cloth, commercial dye, kerosene lamps, etc. These things all cost money, and with the effort it took to get the crop to market, all profit was sucked up by “shipping”. Imagine trying to get some unruly ass mules or obstinate oxen to drag a wagon load of corn up, and over a mountain all without trying to fall off of the damn thing. Only to be told that your work and toil is only worth “fuck all,” literally. Your wagon load of corn is only worth $10, a wagon of the “mountain dew” brings in $150. I am no math whiz, but even I get that much about economics.

With the end of “reconstruction”, when moonshining became more of a full time occupation due to the unforeseen “profitability” of the ever continuing excise tax, reasons for producing ‘shine differed amongst many; property taxes were still a concern, entrepreneurs sought higher incomes, and still fathers just wanted to provide for their children’s education. The typical moonshiner like their reasons, was just as difficult to describe; simple farmers, outcasts and criminals, even respected citizenry. Though they may be different, they did share several qualities, skill, ambition, and vigilance. They worked hard to produce in the outdoors, weathering the heat/cold of the season, always on the lookout for betrayal or the law.

When I think of these early moonshiners, I can’t but help see similarities between them and us. Not everyone who made ‘shine did so with profit in mind, neither does everyone who wrenches or rides on a bike do so to see dollar signs. The Scots-Irish settlers who were just trying to find their niche and live a way of life that was free of repression share similarities with a lot of our influences (punk rock, biker mentalities, skaters, limpnickie attitudes, etc.) as to why we ride and the methods we pursue to enjoy it today. The way settlers came together to help each other even if it was just a passerby needing a dry place to crash for the night, reminds us that each one of us on a bike is a part of this community. Even though Lee is a dude I have never met, if Tim and Ralph think he is worth helping, then I say that’s gotta’ count for something.

Next time I am gonna throw some stuff together about where our camp site is and the Trail of Tears. I hope you learned something about these unconventional people, and realize they helped pave the way for us to be original in our own right. We hope you join us on the run to celebrate the spirit of originality with the moonshine “spirit” of the Appalachians.


All images found on google under "moonshine"