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 Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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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

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Moonshining reputation built on long history

Franklin County wasn't labeled the "Moonshine Capital of the World" for its special brand of the illegal whiskey.

The county earned the reputation for the sheer volume of whiskey produced and for the perseverance of the moonshiners.

Maybe it was the independent nature of Franklin County residents, or their disdain for government telling them what to do or a way to make a little extra cash on the side. Or maybe it was just the topography of the county. Probably, it was all of the above.

Regardless of the reasons, making moonshine whiskey has been part of the county's history from just about the year it was established --1786. That was just a few years before Shay's Rebellion, an attempt by residents of western Pennsylvania to quash the newly formed federal government's decision to tax whiskey.

With those taxes looming, moonshiners went "underground," to ply their trade by night and in the secret confines of mountainous areas with plentiful streams.

That's why the rugged, mountainous western part of Franklin County around Endicott was a home to many stills, easily hidden in the deep crevices of the hills. Many raids took place in the Shooting Creek and Rennet Bag Creek sections of the area.

Generations of Franklin County residents have been in the business, passing down the techniques as surely as grandmothers pass down their recipes.

Most moonshiners were, by all accounts, ordinary citizens carrying on a tradition and making a little money to supplement otherwise slight incomes.

Others fought with revenuers, outsiders and amongst themselves, with some of those scraps ending in deaths. Many went on trial for moonshining and related offenses including murder. Some were acquitted; others went to jail.

Local police were often caught up in the trade, accepting protection money to keep their noses out of the business. Informers cropped up occasionally and some were even killed.

In researching the topic, there seems to be no end to the stories, many of which are still told to any eager ear.

One such story may best sum up moonshining activities in the county. "The Franklin County whiskey conspiracy case" in 1935 brought widespread attention to the county.

The following account of this case is from A Bicentennial History of the county by John S. and Emily J. Salmon:

Prohibition had made illegal distilling even more profitable and as business picked up so did investigations. As a result of one such inquiry a federal grand jury indicted 34 in a conspiracy case that defrauded the federal government of an estimated $5.5 million in whiskey excise taxes.

Those indicted included former Franklin County sheriff D. Wilson Hodges, a state prohibition officer, several deputies with the sheriff's department, former House of Delegates member David A. Nicholson and Franklin County Commonwealth's Attorney Charles Carter Lee.

The conspiracy reportedly began in 1928 when then-Franklin County Sheriff Peter Hodges divided the county into districts and assigned a deputy to each district. The deputy's job was to enlist people to operate stills and then collect protection money -- $25 per still, $10 per load of whiskey and $5 for a filling station. Lee was accused of being a ringleader of the conspiracy.

As a side note to the case, 17 days before the grand jury began meeting, a potential key witness, Deputy Sheriff Thomas Jefferson Richards, and a prisoner he was escorting were gunned down in Rocky Mount when they got out of the car Richards was driving. Richards took 15 bullets, from both a shotgun and a .45 caliber pistol, in the chest and back. The car he was driving, a 1931 Ford roadster, was riddled with bullets in the ambush.

During the conspiracy trial, the government produced 176 witnesses "who told the jury of the huge extent of of the liquor operations in the county." Some of those witnesses, called rumrunners, said they had moved more than a million gallons of whiskey out of the county during the period covered in the indictment, traveling in caravans at high speed with "pilot" cars running interference to "ward off any officers that tried to stop them." (One of those rumrunners was a woman, Mrs. Willie Carter Sharpe, who said she moved more than 220,000 gallons between 1926 and 1931.)

Government statistics said that between 1930 and 1935 a total of 37 tons of yeast, 16,920 tons of sugar and thousands of tons of malt, meal and other materials used in making whiskey had been shipped to Franklin County. More than a million five-gallon cans made specifically for liquor were sold in the county during that time. Most were sold by Robert P. DeHart of Shooting Creek, who pleaded no contest in the trial.

It took the government 25 days over a period of five weeks to build its case. The defense used 16 days to try to refute the case, calling 69 of its own witnesses. Introductory statements to the jury, closing arguments and rebuttals took nine days.

The trial lasted 10 weeks and was the longest trial on record in Virginia to that date except for the treason trial of Aaron Burr, which was held in Richmond in 1807.

The Franklin County conspiracy case went to jury at 3:10 p.m. on June 29 and a verdict was reached on July 1. Twenty of the 23 defendants were found guilty. Lee and two deputies were acquitted. Most of those received light sentences and were reportedly back in the business before they even started serving their jail times.

Many more moonshining-related trials have occurred in the county over the years as the business didn't stop.

In a 1972 bust, the largest still ever found in Franklin County was destroyed.

With 20 718-gallon vats, the still was located off Prillaman Switch Road between Ferrum and Henry. The operation had a mash capacity of 14,360 gallons, capable of producing 1,436 gallons of whiskey per week.

Later that year, in December, an even larger still was found near Ferrum, with 24 718-gallon vats.

That December bust gained such notoriety, as most Franklin County residents will say with a wink and a swig of pride, that a photo of the still has been widely distributed and a copy of it hangs in the Franklin County Courthouse.

No one was ever charged in the December 1972 bust.

According to the Salmons' book, of the 277 stills found in the state from July 1, 1971 to July 1, 1972, 119 were in Franklin County. The nearest competitor was Buchanan County with only 20.

Between 1959 and 1985, of the 753 stills destroyed statewide, about 300 were in Franklin County. No other county even came close.

The last large-scale bust was in 2000, when Operation Lightning Strike resulted in 30 indictments related to three operations, two in Franklin County and one in North Carolina.

A Ferrum man, who authorities said was the ringleader of the largest of those operations, was sentenced to five years and 10 months in federal prison.

His operation produced more than 213,780 gallons of moonshine between 1992 and 1999, authorities said.

County authorities say the practice has probably not stopped but busts are few and far between these days.

As Special Agent Kenny Stoneman said in the Salmons' book, "as long as the sun rises over Smith Mountain Lake and sets over Philpott Lake to the west, there will be liquor made in Franklin County."

 
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