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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
540-483-5113
Fax: 540-483-8013

Powell's books recount moonshine days
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Staff Photo by Morris Stephenson: Jack Powell of Roanoke, a retired ABC agent, is shown holding copies of his two books A Dying Art and A Dying Art II. The latter contains the account of his UFO sighting while on an assignment on Runnett Bag Creek near the Franklin/Floyd County border in November 1975.

Friday, February 1, 2008

By MORRIS STEPHENSON - Staff Writer

While Jack Powell has kept track of UFO sightings, he also has managed to find time to collect newspaper and other accounts of the moonshine activities in counties where he worked throughout the state.

Many of his own stories are included in two books he has written, "A Dying Art," and "A Dying Art II."

Powell recalls joining the ABC's enforcement division on May 15, 1957, with his first assignment covering Rockingham, Page, Highland and Augusta counties and the cities within.

Over the years, he worked in 10 counties, all in southwest and central Virginia. Ten other counties were added to his list through undercover work.

A year after becoming an agent, he was assigned to work from the Roanoke office. From there, he spent countless days every year assisting the three to four full-time agents assigned to Franklin County.

Franklin County's agents included Ken Stoneman, John Hix and Jim Bowman. Stoneman later went on to become the Western District supervisor. In 1978, Powell became assistant supervisor of the Western District.

In the Roanoke office, Powell worked with Ross DuBose, Paul Bell, Wayne Prillaman and George Martin, who were just as well known in Franklin County.

His career as an ABC agent ended with his retirement on Sept. 15, 1991.

He estimated agents spent about 50 percent of their time "running whiskey cars (loaded with moonshine)," most of which came out of Franklin County.

Between 1957 and 1991, Powell said he went on countless still raids and his arrest record was among the top in the district and the state. His undercover arrests were included in the annual totals.

From 1995 until 2004, Powell was employed by a private firm that provided courtroom security for Roanoke's federal court system, a part of the U.S. Marshall's service.

It was during this time that Powell had the time to put all his all his experiences on paper for his first book.

He is believed to be the only law enforcement agent in the state who has penned a book on the subject.

Powell has also worked on three television productions on moonshine -- "Moonshine Madness" on CMT, "Moonshiners, Rum Runners and Bootleggers," on the History Channel, and "Hillbilly: The Real Story," on the National Geographic Channel. All features are still shown occasionally on the networks.

His books are sold at the Franklin County Historical Society, Blue Ridge Institute in Ferrum and at the Ram's Head bookstore in Roanoke.

Powell said he came along at a time when ABC and federal ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agents were considered a "tough breed." There were long chases both in "souped up" police cars and on foot.

Often, the apprehension of a fleeing moonshiner resulted in a fist fight.

Powell said his famous fire axe, affectionately called "The Devil," had a reputation among those who chose to make the white "likker" and pocket money that the government figured it was owed taxes on.

He never backed down from a fight, he said, and always had his pistol handy in case it was needed. Over the years, he fired many warning shots into the air but never one directly at a suspect, he added.

Many of his accounts concern undercover work with the ABC.

Once, in Southwest Virginia, Powell was carrying a number of fake identification cards when he was arrested trying to make a buy in a bar.

He tried telling the arresting officers who he really was, but they did not believe him because of the various bogus IDs he was carrying.

After a three-day stint in jail, he finally got an officer to call his boss in Richmond and he was released. That story, in detail, is included in the book.

In another strange incident, he had to pay for a fast police car he wrecked in Giles County. Powell said he later sold the car, for its super-charged engine, to a moonshiner from Floyd. That story too is included in the book.

Powell said when he first started working in the Roanoke area, agents destroyed a lot of "steam outfits," where they used steam heat on the pots.

And he remembers how in the early 1960s that the "blackpot submarine-type" stills became the popular way of manufacturing the illegal booze.

That method used wooden and galvanized 817-gallon pots heated by propane.

"They would use pieces of pipe made in the shape of a fork to place under the still to provide the heat," Powell said. "They would take a saw and cut small holes along in the pipe and then connect the pipe to a propane tank to supply the heat under the sub. They would place empty sugar bags under the still and set fire to them. Then they would turn on the propane."

The first and second runs of liquor would go to friends and select customers while the third and fourth runs were sold to the general customers.

Powell said the largest moonshine still was found in 1993. It consisted of 36 submarine stills found in a building in Pittsylvania County, just across the county line near Penhook on Smith Mountain Lake.

The second largest was 24 blackpots destroyed in December, 1972. A year later, in April, the third biggest still consisting of 22 blackpots was destroyed in Floyd County.

Other operations that stand out in Powell's mind include the 18-pot "cemetery still" where cinder blocks painted white were used to resemble tombstones in a cemetery.

The "cemetery" was located along a dirt road leading to the still site, so it would look like the road ended there just in case agents flew over the site.

Also at the operation was an abandoned house, where there was electric service in a dead man's name. The still, which was under a tin roof in a pine thicket, was lit by the electricity from the house.

And then there was a 20-pot outfit off Prillaman Switch Road in Franklin County that had to be reached by going through a railroad tunnel built by Norfolk and Western Railway.

"What made this operation so different was the still hands were using raw gasoline to heat the mash. A tiny spark could have blown up both them and the operation," he said.

"All of these operations had the capacity to turn out a tremendous amount of whiskey. An 800-gallon still produces 80 gallons of whiskey per run," he noted.

"The math is simple. If you have 20 800-gallon stills filled with mash, that amounts to 16,000 gallons of mash, right? At a 10-to-1 ratio (mash to whiskey), you would have 1,600 gallons of whiskey produced by one run," Powell said.

Tougher federal laws have helped cut down on moonshine production, he said.

"There's not a still in every hollow these days," he said.

But there's an old saying a moonshiner told him many years ago: "If there's something that will ferment, someone will try to distill it because he doesn't want to pay the taxes on it."

 
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