Generations of Memories
Heart of the Blue Ridge
By Wm. Axley Allen © 1983-2012
Issue: April, 1983
Bootlegging, like the chestnut tree, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Only a few old die-hards persist today. Yet, there was a time when bootleg whisky was one of the few ways a mountain family had of getting cash. Not everyone participated but those who did were an independent bunch. They worked hard to provide for their families the best way they could during times many of us today would find impossible. They were not the lawless hillbilly so many stories have been told about. They were, for the most part, honest, God-fearing family men who did what they had to do. They didn’t choose bootlegging because it was easy, on the contrary, it was extremely hard work but it offered a way for an honest man to “take care of his own.” The independent nature was often coupled with a sly sense of humor, making them colorful characters indeed. They were men of a bygone era. There was a quality in the product they produced and those who made it took pride in that quality. A pride that I bet is not known by the large corporate distilleries of today.
The articles about bootleggers in The Mountain Laurel will not be making fun of those who made whisky. They may be humorous but it is not our intention to make fun, just the opposite. We wish to pay tribute to the people and the era when independence was alive and times were hard but through it all, humor managed to ease the hardships, if only long enough for a smile. - Editor
Must have been 50 or 60 years ago when this story supposedly took place. Seems there was a fellow who had him a still set up down near Lover’s Leap. He was notorious as a “bootlegger” but his word was gold. If he told you something, you could count on it and everyone that ever drank his “corn” bragged on it. Word is that even the judge down at Stuart liked it so much that he kept a little “laid back” for his own use.
Well, it seems that whenever the revenue officers in these parts ran up on a slow time finding other stills, they would come looking for “Jake.” He was their ace in the hole, a “bonified bootlegger” to fill the slack time and their monthly arrest reports. They were good old boys but they had to make a living too and all hard feelings aside, “Jake” understood. When pickings weren’t so lean for them, why they were some of “Jake’s” best customers. It’s been said that tears came to the eyes of many a grown revenue man when he had to take an ax to one of “Jake’s” stills.
Well, on this occasion, “Jake” had his still set up down near “the Leap” and it was a model of “bootlegging art.” Just exactly what the revenue boys needed, since they had received instructions from Richmond the day before to dismantle a working still and send it to the capitol for display. The workmanship “Jake” had put into this still was the culmination of a lifetime of experience. He had spared no detail in its construction and it was just the thing for Richmond.
Realizing he was “collar’d”, “Jake” pitched right in and helped the revenue boys start taking it apart. “Weren’t no use to not be neighborly just because they had a job to do.” It’s hard work taking down a still that’s been built right but by late afternoon, they were finishing up. They had been resting just a few minutes when one of the boys said, “Damn, I wish we’d brought a camera and got a picture of her before we took her down.” The other revenuer agreed. If they’d only thought, those pictures would have been a prize up in Richmond. So while visions of promotions were running through their heads, “Jake” spoke up and said, “If it means anything to you boys, I’ll put her back up this evening an’ ya’ll can come back up in the morning an’ get yer pictures.” The boys were delighted and quickly agreed for “Jake” to set the still back up. It was past “getting off time” and they were in a hurry to get started back down the mountain so after thanking “Jake,” they headed back to Stuart.
Bright and early the next morning, they started back up the mountain to get those “pictures.” But “Jake” had a surprise waiting for them when they arrived at the still site. There was “Jake” boiling off bootleg as fast as his still would go. It was apparent he had been working all night and also apparent he’d run off a lot more than the couple of “cans” that were setting around the fire.
The boys were upset. Not because “Jake” was violating the law but because he’d tricked them this way. He’d done exactly what they’d told him to do. They just hadn’t said don’t run off anymore bootleg. Didn’t matter much that their pictures were going to show a “bonefide bootleggers still” in operation. That was a mild poultice for their wounded pride. They knew if they had told “Jake” not to run off another batch when he got the still put back together, he wouldn’t have. They also knew if they hadn’t been so excited about sending his still to Richmond and getting some pictures of it in operation, they might have noticed all those big oak barrels of “mash” sitting all around just waiting to be run off.
One thing for sure, when “Jake” got his still put back together, he “noticed.” He had worked all night long running off batch after batch, trying as hard as he could to get it all “run ‘n hauled” before the revenuers got back with their camera.
Well, like I said, the boys were upset because they’d been tricked, not to mention born gullible and they told “Jake” he was under arrest again. “Jake” is the only man in these parts that’s ever been arrested for bootlegging two days running on the same still at that! But knowing “Jake,” it seems appropriate that he should have that honor.
The boys were in right much of a hurry after they got their “pictures” so they started right in to tearing down “Jake’s” still again. “Jake” reckoned they better “wait till she cooled down a bit” and after a couple of pretty loud ouches and sizable blisters, the boys agreed. But shortly, things were cool enough to touch and they got the still taken back down with “Jake’s” help and loaded it on their truck along with “Jake” for the trip down to Stuart.
The day of “Jake’s” trial, he was to be tried for two counts of bootlegging and since word had gotten out about the circumstances of his second arrest, the courtroom was packed. When the revenue boys walked into the room snickers and outright laughs noted their arrival. Since “court days” were pretty big doings in those days, the town was packed. Everyone wanted to find out how “Jake” would fare before the judge.
Well, as it turned out, he “fared” pretty well. The judge reckoned that “Jake” was guilty on both counts but since the revenue boys had told him to set the still back up and hadn’t told him not to run off any more bootleg, if he found “Jake” guilty on the second count, then he’d have to find the boys guilty as accomplices. This wouldn’t really be fair to them because they had already suffered enough humiliation by way of being laughed at by everybody in the county. (At this point, he had to threaten to clear the courtroom if the laughter didn’t cease. Immediately!) So in the best judgment of the court, they would have to let “Jake” off on the second charge and only find him guilty on the first. This decision met with the approval of everyone including the boys and “Jake”, although he could never understand why a man couldn’t run off a batch of “corn” for his friends and neighbors without it being the “law’s” business.
Well, “old Jake” died several years ago and I guess he never did understand that part of the law. The part that gave somebody the right to go nosing in honest folks lives. I can’t help but wonder, now and then, if there isn’t a few old, faded photographs stuck in some long forgotten file in the state archives at Richmond that show a “bonefide bootlegger’s still” down in Patrick County, with wood smoke curling up over the “pot” and a little old bearded mountain man standing there smiling at the camera.