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This is the story of the Republican from Gainesville who finally caught an infamous moonshiner
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

The history of moonshining, especially in the mountains of Appalachia, is often related as a colorful part of our culture, overalled barefooted “hillbillies” minding their hidden stills and eluding “revenooers,” federal revenue officers out to put them out of business.

There were violent episodes, however, with people on both sides losing their livelihoods and sometimes their lives.

In 1877, a Lt. McIntyre, a federal agent, died while on a mission to arrest moonshiners and put a thriving bootleg operation out of business in a remote section of Fannin County. He and other law enforcement officers had raided the home of Ayres Jones in the far backwoods so isolated that the nearest neighbors were miles apart.

The federal agents had burst through the door of Jones’s home only to find his wife and several children there. McIntyre waited. At some point, shots were fired into the home, and McIntyre was struck. The shooter or shooters fled into the woods, and the feds either lost them or gave up their pursuit so they could look after their lieutenant. Although it was said the shots were fired into the house, McIntyre’s body was found in the backyard.

Ayres Jones was the suspected shooter and became the target of an intensive manhunt. Federal agents and members of the military days later again invaded the Fannin County mountains where they suspected Jones was hiding. More than 50 strong, they again burst into his home with only Jones’s wife and children present. They also entered other homes in the area to see if friends were hiding the suspect.

The troops made no bones they were on a mission for revenge, and those who were arrested claimed they were treated badly, cursed, roughed up and targets of serious threats. They also said they saw no warrants for entering their homes or for arrest.

Most of those arrested were taken to Cartersville, then to Atlanta to wait in jail for trial. One woman testified she was made to walk 80 miles to Cartersville.

A judge in Atlanta, however, released most, if not all, of those taken into custody.

That didn’t keep the Feds from remembering the murder of Lt. McIntyre, nor his suspected killer, Ayres Jones.

Three years later, a young Gainesville man, J.B. Gaston, a U.S. deputy marshal, set out to find and prosecute Jones. So determined was Gaston that he and another federal agent, James Findley of Gainesville, rode horseback three days to the Frogtown section of Fannin County, where their suspect lived. When they could ride horses no farther, the agents began to walk seven miles through rugged terrain to Jones’s home, arriving at 10 o’clock at night.

They feared a barking dog would arouse the suspect, so they broke down his door and pulled him from bed. Jones’s sons and daughters also were in the house, and one of the sons escaped into the woods. Gaston and Findley also arrested Joe Whitt in addition to Jones.

The agents with their prisoners in tow immediately began their long trek through the thickly wooded mountains to where they had left their horses. They feared the son who had escaped or other friends of Jones would attempt a rescue, but it never happened.

The suspects were later taken to Atlanta, where they were prosecuted for the murder of Lt. McIntyre.

That “Gaston-got-his-man” success apparently jump-started J.B. Gaston’s career and made him a hero in the eyes of homefolks in Hall and other North Georgia counties.

He became U.S. commissioner for North Georgia, serving 32 years. That was a little unusual because he was a prominent Republican in an era when Democrats dominated politics. Republicans weren’t too popular as they were responsible for enforcing Reconstruction rules in the South after the Civil War.

Born in Lumpkin County in 1849, Gaston moved to Hall County in 1871. He became active in politics, and was elected 9th District delegate to the Republican convention. Gainesvillians admired him so much they elected him mayor twice. During his terms as mayor, a new City Hall was built, as well as the town’s waterworks.

Judge Gaston became influential in state Republican politics. In 1908, he was credited with carrying the 9th District for presidential nominee William Howard Taft, who defeated the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan. Heavily Democratic Hall County was shocked Bryan won the county by only 78 votes.

Gaston died in June 1916 after suffering a brain hemorrhage while attending yet another Republican convention in Chicago. At the time he was chair of the Gainesville School Board. His funeral was at First Baptist Church, where he had been active for many years. His wife and eight children survived. He is buried under a large magnolia tree in Alta Vista Cemetery.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE; 770-532-2326; johnny.peggy@gmail.com. or vardeman1956@att.net

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