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Johnny Vardeman: Moonshiners often were able to outwit law enforcement
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When moonshine liquor was in its heyday, bootleggers went to great lengths to hide their stills or disguise their liquor-making supplies and products. They also used their imagination to outfox local sheriffs and revenue officers.

Moonshine is still made in the mountains of North Georgia, probably even in the timberlands of South Georgia or almost in plain sight in somebody’s backyard. Growing marijuana and making methamphetamine are more fashionable illegal activities today, however.

The late Charles Hardy wrote in one of his “So I Hear” columns in the weekly Gainesville News about a ruse by moonshiners to escape the law one evening. Several cars came roaring around Gainesville until sheriff’s cars starting chasing them as they raced through county backroads.

Meantime, a caravan of 15 to 20 liquor cars leisurely rode through town and on to what was Camp Gordon in DeKalb County during World War I. All the law enforcement was out chasing the decoys while the loads of whiskey went their merry way.

Camp Gordon with thousands of soldiers was a major market for the moonshine trade, as well as rest of the Atlanta area.

We think of “spike strips” to stop vehicles trying to elude law enforcement as a modern-day device. However, revenue agents and sheriffs used them early on in their efforts to stop rum runners.

They probably did stop some of them, but eventually the criminals figured out a way to get through the spikes that were laid across the road to puncture their tires. Bootleggers would weld pieces of railroad track across their front bumpers to pick up the spikes before their cars hit them. The rail also would knock most any other obstruction off the road.

The crooks also devised a way to blow dust up from the dirt roads in that era to blind their pursuers. They would pour oil on exhaust pipes to provide a smoke screen to confuse the officers chasing them.

Stories of liquor runners hiding their cache in false car trunk bottoms or floorboards are familiar even in recent years. Drug dealers do the same today with their illicit hauls.

In moonshine’s prime time, wholesale grocers would lay in large supplies of sugar and other raw materials used in liquor-making. Hardware stores did a big business in copper and gallon tin cans. Others made money off fruit jars used to bottle illegally made corn whiskey.

“Revenuers,” as moonshiners called federal revenue agents, learned to spot large shipments of sugar, jars, jugs or cans as clues to liquor stills’ location. Then again, the criminals learned to foil them by hiding them in the backs of trucks or concealed in their cars. Some, however, flouted the law by openly driving their cars or trucks without any pretense of hiding their supplies.

Dawson County, which now marks its moonshine history with an annual festival, was a hotbed of illegal liquor runners especially after automobiles began coming off production lines. The movie classic “Thunder Road” starring Robert Mitchum depicts moonshine runners racing lawmen.

Few people had telephones early in the 20th century, and those who did found they couldn’t use them because lines were constantly cut, apparently by moonshiners who didn’t want their movements reported to the revenuers. Hardy wrote that it wasn’t until the late 1920s when a telephone line could be maintained reliably to Dawsonville and some other North Georgia communities.

While there were some fatal confrontations with the law, bootleggers sometimes had it out with each other. Hardy, perhaps drawing from some stories his father, A.S. Hardy, wrote before him in the same newspaper, told about an old-fashioned pistol duel between two men suspected as moonshine whiskey kingpins in the area. They met near Alta Vista Cemetery, argued, then shot at each other. Both men died of their wounds.

Various versions of the duel have been told over the years, but most say the two were arguing over whiskey, might have been under the influence themselves and were distantly related. One story claims the two were fighting over a gallon of whiskey, but doubters question that because they had access to all they could drink.

Another theory was the two were set up, and somebody else did the shooting so they could take over their territories in the illegal liquor trade.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.