The Cool Springs/Bark Camp community in northwest Hall County apparently was in an uproar over the killing of two moonshiners by law officers in a midnight shootout Dec. 16, 1884.
Two well-known residents were the victims, James Anderson "Big An" Grant, and Josiah Prater. When deputy U.S. Marshal J.B. Gaston and his posse began the raid on foot that morning, the moonshiners, apparently having been tipped off, upset the buggy and wagon they had left a mile away and captured the young man looking after them.
The raiders heard gunfire and rushed back to find their lookout missing and believed the moonshiners had either stolen or shot their horses. The lawmen rounded up reinforcements, as did the moonshiners, and the "war" resulted. Residents might not have condoned illegal liquor-making, but neither did they believe the crime justified agents killing two of their neighbors. That's reflected in the inscriptions on their tombstones that included the word "assassinated."
Families of those involved said bad blood could have already existed between some of the raiders and some of the moonshiners prior to the incident. In addition, lawmen thought the moonshiners had killed the young man looking after their transportation. He later turned up safe, though a bit bruised.
Boone Grant, whose great uncle "Big An" Grant was one of the victims, said family members didn't believe Big An would harm a horse, though he did admire saddles and bridles such as had been cut from the raiders' horses. That probably further incensed the lawmen. More than one version of the shootout exists, and probably truth in any of them, Grant said.
Deputy U.S. marshal J.B. Gaston had married into the family of some of the moonshiners, causing some family members of Liberty Baptist Church to move their memberships to Harmony Church after the shootings. "There probably was overreaction on both sides," said Gene Robinson, whose great-uncle, Oregon Smith, was among the moonshiners who escaped.
The U.S. commissioner at the time issued warrants for Hiram Grant, Thomas Grant, Oregon Smith and "Little Anderson" Grant. Two other Praters escaped, along with Smith. Robinson said Smith, who was related to his mother, fled to a relative's home in Forsyth County after the shootout. When law officers came looking for him, he hid in a chimney, later leaving the county.
A neighbor, a Dr. Brice, recognized Smith on a trip to Missoula, Mont., some time later. They had lunch together, and were to meet again for lunch the next day, according to family lore. But Smith didn't show up the second time and was never seen again.
Over the years, there have been many run-ins between "revenuers" and moonshiners. Longtime residents in Hall, Lumpkin, Dawson and other mountain counties can recall when liquor still raids were fairly common. Occasionally today somebody will be caught making what they refer to as "white lightning." But deadly confrontations such as "the moonshine wars" in 1884 were rare.
Moonshine stills were all over the woods. Some made the liquor for their own use or for families and friends. Others looked to make a profit off it. Neighbors looked after neighbors for the most part or looked the other way if they suspected moonshine making down by the creek. Even some sheriffs, said retired history professor Ray Rensi of Dahlonega, thought it their job to protect the moonshiners. At a recent Northeast Georgia History Center forum, Rensi said of moonshining, "It was illegal, not immoral ... Nobody lost their social status."
Revenue agents who hunted down illegal stills didn't get official status until the 1920s during Prohibition, which prompted more demand for corn whisky. But U.S. Treasury agents worked with local law enforcement and taxing authorities as far back as the 1880s to crack down on those trying to evade taxes on anything, especially illegal liquor. That is why in some areas "revenooers," as they were called, weren't very popular and led to neighbors shielding illegal stills and causing occasional confrontations between the law and moonshiners.
J.B. Gaston, the revenuer who led the raid in northwest Hall County, apparently was popular enough in Gainesville as he became the first Republican mayor, serving 1897-99.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone (770) 532-2326; e-mail email@example.com. His column appears Sundays.