Lawless, Moonshiners, and the VHS
“In one county (Franklin) it is claimed 99 people out of 100 are making, or have some connection to illicit liquor.”
– Official Records of the Commission of Law Enforcement and Observance 1935, Vol. 4, p. 1075
Moonshine is the general term that has been used to describe “illegal liquor,” mainly corn liquor. The term also relates to producing the product by moonlight.
Franklin County, Virginia was said to have been the wettest county in the world based on the production of illegal liquor that took place there during the early twentieth century. So much illegal liquor was said to have been produced there that the county rivaled the likes of New York City and Chicago. This part of Virginia’s infamous history has recently been brought to our attention with the current Hollywood movie Lawless and the Discovery Channel series Moonshiners.
The movie Lawless is loosely based on Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World. Bondurant, a relative of the infamous moonshiner family, the Bondurant, takes the reader on a wild ride through southwest Virginia’s hills and mountains and its illegal liquor production and trade during the Great Depression.
The discovery channel recently aired the so-called reality T.V. series Moonshiners, which follows both the illegal moonshiners and the law officials who attempt to catch them in the mountain and hill towns of southwest Virginia. Some episodes averaged close to two million viewers, and the moonshiners from Pittsylvania County has garnered a fairly large following, even though the Virginia ABC has stated that the show was a dramatization and that moonshine was not actually being made.
So, what does Lawless and Moonshiners have to do with the Virginia Historical Society?
The VHS was not involved in the “The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy,” but it does have several items in its collections that relate to the distillation of spirits. These include materials relating to such events as the Whiskey Rebellion, when President George Washington suppressed a farmers revolt over liquor taxes, and prohibition in Virginia in the early twentieth century. The society also has three stills in its collection, and two of them are on display for you to see.
The item pictured below is located in the “Becoming New Southerners” section of the Story of Virginia exhibition. This copper still was made in the late nineteenth century by the McConnell family of Washington County. The still was brought to the VHS in 1996 after being discovered when the family was moving hay bales in the family barn. A wall had to be removed and the still uncovered before it could be taken to the VHS. The still hadn’t been used in a long time and was in poor shape, so conservators worked to get it in shape to have it displayed.
The second still, acquired from Sumpter Priddy III, is a copper still made by Arnold & Fiske of Richmond, c. 1860–70. It is currently in the Virginian’s at Work exhibition. The third one is located in museum storage and comes from Northumberland or Lancaster County. This still dates from the 1920s. (1996.155.A-D)
These stills, whether used illegally or not, help to provide insight into the making of distilled spirits in Virginia. Legal moonshine (corn liquor/unaged whiskey) is being produced at several distilleries in Virginia. Catoctin Creek in Loudoun County makes General Mosby’s spirit, which is named after the famous Confederate partisan ranger, John S. Mosby. It’s a white whiskey made from a majority of rye. Other distilleries, like Stillhouse Distillery in Culpeper County, produce “The Original Moonshine”—clear corn whiskey.
Below is a diagram of how the still would work.
The word “still” is derived from a process called “distilling.” Here’s how a still works:
- First, a mix called “mash” is made with water and ground, unsprouted kernels of corn. After the mash steeps for a few days, a small amount of “malt” is added. Malt is made from ground sprouted corn kernels. Within several days, the mixture produces a low-alcohol, fermented beverage called beer.
- The beer is poured into a copper cooker and heated to a boil. Steam collects under pressure in the copper cap on top of the cooker.
- The pressurized steam passes from the cap to the cap arm and then to the worm, a section of coiled copper tubing (or “worm”) that is immersed in a container filled with cold water.
- The cold water chills the steam into liquid in a process known as condensing.
- The condensed liquid is usually filtered through a piece of cloth that contains pieces of hickory charcoal to help remove impurities as the liquid flows into a collecting jar.
Greg Hansard is the Senior Web Resources Officer at the Virginia Historical Society.