Moonshining is Rabun County’s oldest industry. And at one time it probably was the county’s largest. Rabun County also held the distinction of being the moonshine capital of Georgia.
Poverty has been a fact of life in mountainous Rabun County throughout much of its history. The Depression of the 1930s made the problem of rural poverty even worse. Distilling whiskey out of corn or apples was a way for subsistence farmers to make badly needed money. For many, moonshining was an economic necessity. It became a way of life.
Every Hollow Had a Still
Moonshining was concentrated in the remote Persimmon area of western Rabun County and near the Chattooga River in the county’s eastern reaches. However, an investigator for the Rabun Sheriff’s Department said in a 2000 interview, “There is not a hollow in this county where there hasn’t been a still at some time in the past and some of them have stills now.”
And consider a resident’s recollection in a Clayton Tribune article about moonshining. “In 1952, I was a senior at college and taking a chemistry class. When we got to the chapter on distillation, the professor said, ‘Everybody from Rabun County is dismissed from this chapter. They already know more about it than anybody else.’ ”
A small still could produce five to 10 gallons of whiskey from one load of mash. But some industrial-size stills were active in the area. A 1973 newspaper article read: “A 4,320-gallon still full of mash was dynamited by law enforcement agents from Georgia and North Carolina on Tuesday…the officers set five explosive charges around the apparatus and blew it up…The still beer created a small stream of smelling suds as it flowed through the woods.”
Radiators and Embalming Fluid
Many old-timers took pride in the whiskey they made. But a lot of the stuff was undrinkable if not dangerous.
In a 2004 Clayton Tribune article, a retired revenue agent said he never saw a still that did not use a car radiator during a career in which he shut down hundreds of stills between 1969 and 1979. Your car’s radiator is filled with antifreeze. It is toxic.
In addition to the problem of lead poisoning due to soldered parts in homebrew stills, the greatest danger is what went into the liquor. Embalming fluid, rubbing alcohol, wood alcohol, paint thinner, formaldehyde and bleach are a few of the extra ingredients that have been detected in Rabun County moonshine.
Noted Rabun County moonshiner Semmie Free, commenting two decades ago on the then-current state of whiskey-making said, “The don’t make nothin’ right no more…all this old stuff they make it out of now, hell, it’d kill a snake.”
Fruit Jar Station
Fruit jars were commonly used for bottling moonshine. To give law enforcement clues about who was moonshining, merchants were required to report large sales of Mason jars and sugar, a key component of whiskey making. A Clayton grocer reported that prior to this requirement in the 1950s, nearly two-thirds of his business involved jars and sugar.
Oral history has it that large quantities of Mason jars typically were unloaded at the train depot in the tiny village of Tiger. It might be coincidental but Tiger was dotted with apple orchards, and apples were used for making moonshine brandy. Whatever the reason, the Tiger depot was commonly known as Fruit Jar Station.
Fast Cars and Helpful Neighbors
The relationship between Rabun County moonshiners and law enforcement was generally benign. In fact, it seems that moonshiners routinely expected to be caught. A state agent quoted a county moonshiner as saying, “My job is making liquor. Your job is to catch me.”
But this is not say that moonshiners did not run. They did. In fast cars.
Many of the cars used by haulers or runners were 1939 and 1940 Fords. They were known to be fast and were souped up to make them faster. It was said that some Fords could hit 150 miles per hour in second gear.
Neighbors were helpful in protecting runners by watching out for the law. In a 1973 interview, a moonshiner said, “If I was coming through Persimmon and the law was after me, they (neighbors) heard me coming. The families got out and would pull cars in the road to block them (the law).”
Police chases could get exciting.
In 1955 Sheriff Lamon Green and Deputy Fay Blalock chased a runner speeding down a road to South Carolina. Queen shot the rear tire of the fleeing car but it kept going. When the driver realized the sheriff was not stopping at the South Carolina state line, the female passenger started throwing fruit jars filled with moonshine out the window. One tire on the sheriff’s car was badly cut but Queen kept going, dodging the flying jars. The chase ended 15 miles into South Carolina at a police blockade.
In another memorable chase, Sheriff Queen and his deputy stopped a truck loaded with moonshine at the traffic light on Clayton’s Main Street. The deputy jumped onto the running board of the truck to take the key out of the ignition. However, the driver sped off, knocking the deputy off the truck. The ensuing high-speed chase down Warwoman Road came to an abrupt halt when the truck came to a screeching stop, causing the sheriff to rear-end it.
The runner took off, leaving the sheriff behind in his wrecked car. The sheriff commandeered a passing taxi and took off after the whiskey runner. Dust from the road made it difficult to see a logging truck traveling in the opposite direction. The taxi collided with the logging truck, ending the chase at that point. However, the runners were captured later that day in the Sky Valley area with 480 gallons of moonshine.
Widespread moonshining is a thing of the past, but it remains a legacy of Rabun County. So the next time you top off your radiator or fill your Mason jars with strawberry preserves, pause to remember a colorful chapter in the county’s history.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in April 2020.