North Georgia mountains long have had the reputation of a hiding place for illegal liquor stills.
It’s been the theme of books, stories and film for ages. Few stills exist today, but law enforcement officers occasionally turn up one, or a story is told of a moonshiner who makes his own spirits for family and friends, rather than illegal profit.
In the 1880s, an Athens writer explored the mountains searching for stills to confirm many people’s beliefs that they were as abundant as the rhododendron. Towns County residents pooh-poohed any widespread moonshine manufacture.
Could have been he didn’t talk to the right people, or the stills were so cleverly concealed that the writer found little evidence. Most folks told him that the Georgia mountains didn’t produce near the “white lightning” as their neighbors in North Carolina.
If people generally thought Towns County was “an incubating place for drunkenness and illicit whiskey … never was there a graver mistake,” the writer wrote. To prove his point he noted there was nary a bar in Towns County and but one in neighboring Rabun County. Could it have been there was no need for bars if moonshiners had their way?
No, the writer concluded. Moonshining was flourishing years ago, residents told him, “but the day for this traffic has passed. The people denounce the business, and no one can follow it with the assurance of safety. Drunkenness is almost unknown in the mountain counties.”
“We candidly believe there is 10 times more whisky imbibed per capita in Clarke or any of the lower or mid-Georgia counties as in Towns and our mountain belt,” he speculated.
One gentleman told the writer he had seen only one intoxicated man in Hiawassee in a year. He could learn of only a single moonshine still in existence. The reason, the writer surmised, was that law officers were diligent in rooting out illegal liquor makers. Contrary to popular belief, neighbors sometimes would tip off revenuers, who would pay as much as $10 for a lead on a moonshine still.
“It is true that up here,” the Athens writer reported, “as elsewhere, there are some characters who defy the law, but they are soon ‘treed’ by some revenue hound and their property destroyed.”
That might have been in his day. But as late as the 1970s, when former Gov. Zell Miller of Towns County wrote in his book, “The Mountains Within Me,” “Until recent years moonshining was as much a part of the mountain way of life as syrup-making and hog-killing.” It was part of people’s heritage, and they thought of it as routine as other farm chores, a skill handed down for generations.
“Bootlegging,” making and selling white lightning, was mostly by outsiders who moved into the mountains as the best place to hide their illegal activity, Miller wrote in his book.
Rather than making a living by illegal means, in the 1880s, Towns Countians and others in the mountains had turned to scrounging the mountainsides for herbal plants and roots, particularly ginseng. Ginseng gathering continues a popular sideline and moneymaker for some, though they, too, can run afoul of the law. Georgia law strictly governs the gathering and sale of ginseng, a root that is prized for its medicinal qualities, especially in China.
Back in the 1880s, the reporter found, thousands of dollars of ginseng was being exported to China. At that time, Chinese were chewing the root much as Americans were chewing tobacco. Ginseng sold for 25 cents a pound or $1.25 dried. Harvesters were making as much as $5 to $10 a day, a princely sum in those days, and probably more profitable and much less risky than firing up an illegal whisky still.
Laws covering ginseng and other herbs weren’t nearly as strict as they are today, but the legislature at the time did outlaw the gathering of ginseng until its seed had shed. Even then, some feared extinction of the plant if people were allowed to dig it up willy-nilly at any time of year or any time in its growth cycle.
The North Georgia mountains still may be known by some as having a reputation for moonshine-making, but you’d probably find more people digging up ginseng than operating a still.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.