Generations of Memories
Heart of the Blue Ridge
By John W. Stoneberger © 1995
Issue: Winter, 1995
Editor's Note: John Stoneberger wrote stories for The Mountain Laurel for many years about his childhood and growing up on Lewis Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley. I enjoyed a long correspondence with him. This was the last one of his stories we published. He died March 17, 1993 at his home in Front Royal, after a long hard battle with cancer. Before he died, a book of his writings, "Memories of a Lewis Mountain Man" was in the making by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. He never got to see the published book, but at least he knew it was going to be a reality - His memories will now last forever.
As I write mountain memories, I speak of things my mother (who was raised on Lewis Mountain) has told me and things I have experienced there also.
Mama said, "A gallon jug of moonshine whiskey with rock candy in it always set on the mantle piece over the fireplace in the living room" in the home where she was raised. "It was part of our way of life and everyone could use it at their own free will." I have heard her say many a time, "Where it came from, I don't know, but one thing for sure, when the level dropped within a couple of inches of the bottom of the jug, it would fill up again. It appeared we used very little of it, and many a time it seemed to do much good."
A traveler or stranger was often given a drink. The young men in the family sometimes took a drink when coming home cold or wet from hunting. The minister who lived in the home mission would sometimes take a small nip before taking his Sunday evening nap.
Mama said, "I grew up and went out into the world and saw the abuse of alcohol. Then I hated the stuff."
A man of wisdom once said, "A man should never drink strong drink - That if a king who has the queen, horses and gold got drunk he would cry because no one loved him, and if a lazy worthless beggar was given a strong drink, he would feel like a king." So strong drink stirs the emotion of men and can be artificial sadness or happiness. If we have love in our hearts, work and pray, give and do good, we find the joy of life: and this is the real thing.
Mama believed the Blue Ridge mountaineer came as close to knowing how to use whiskey as anyone ever did, and his moonshine served a useful purpose on Lewis Mountain.
Grandpa considered it a necessity in his home. He delighted in being a man of hospitality and this was one of his ways of being a servant of God.
Grandpa died 1917 and I suppose the jug went empty, dried up and disappeared. But I remember very well the summer of 1928. I was four or five years old and we were on our way up Naked Creek Road to the old homeplace when we stopped at a special Agnes home on the left before we came to the top of the mountain.
Here she gave me the honor to carry a one-half pint bottle of yellow corn liquor as we walked to the Grannie Roche homeplace about two miles.
The small bottle would take the place of the faithful old jug that had set on the fireplace mantle piece for years and years....
Like everything else there was a special art in knowing how to make a good moonshine whiskey or brandy. The whiskey was made from grain and brandy from fruit. The mountain people used less sugar, pure water, clean equipment and good ash wood for slow distilling.
I have friends in both Virginia and Tennessee who make a little mountain dew just to remember the old days. I like to take the caps off of the bottles and smell the brandys and whiskies. I think the rye has the most clean distinct odor of all.
I once knew a beautiful young lady and someone asked her if she had ever drunk any moonshine? She smiled very cheerfully and said, "Yes, I have and I learned one thing; it must be used with moderation or you might start talking back to your Daddy..."
A man real drunk was walking across a high river bridge at night and saw the reflection of a full moon in the water. He asked a companion, "What is that I see in the water, like a huge cake of butter?" His friend said, "That is the moon." The drunken man said, "If that is the moon down there, what in the world are we doing up here?"
Grandpa lived on the sunny side of the mountain and that is what I like to write about, but we know there is a dark and cold side too, and this story is from the troubled side of life; the saddest I ever heard, and it has been in my memory since early childhood.
A beautiful young mountain mother with a family of small children was shot and killed by her drunken jealous husband. It was behind their little corn house the awful deed was done. When neighbors found her, the children were gathered around the mother and a small sister was trying to feed the crying hungry infant baby from a cold mother's breast. The father and husband was sent to prison for life.
Last year I was traveling with a cousin near Wolftown, Virginia and she pointed out a building along the road and said, "Do you remember when we were kids and the man killed his wife on the mountain? They brought the body down here on a mule sled where the undertaker took care of her at that place."
Somewhere along the road of life I lost the desire to drink strong drink and have no taste for alcohol. I do have an appreciation for all the good it has done.
Aunt Josie Stoneberger told me this story. A family was terrible sick with the whooping cough. My dad, W.B. Stoneberger was asked to ride a horse to Shenandoah, Virginia to get medicine from the doctor for them; when the river bridge had been washed out by a flood! As he was trying to find a fordable way across the river, his horse slipped on a slick rock and fell, throwing him in the cold river! He rode the three miles and when he came in the house his clothes were froze on him because the night air was so cold in late November.
They heated the stove the best they could, put him in dry clothes in the living room bed, packed the small children around him to help get him warm, but he still shook so bad he almost shook the bed apart!
Then she gave him a hot toddy of moonshine whiskey and ginger. This broke the chill in a few minutes, and he didn't as much as get a bad cold from all the exposure.
Moonshine whiskey had many good uses by God fearing people, on the other hand with the wrong use I once heard a discouraged drunken man say, "Oh! Whiskey you villain. You have been my downfall, you have beat me and banged me and robbed me of all..."