Thompson Shines Light on Moonshine in New Book

Posted on: Monday, April 21st, 2014 by Brent Treash
Appalachian moonshining in the 1930s was an industry that was born out of necessity and which grew into an international enterprise fueled ironically by efforts to stop it, according to a new book by a 1979 Emory & Henry College graduate.

Appalachian moonshining in the 1930s was an industry that was born out of necessity and which grew into an international enterprise fueled ironically by efforts to stop it, according to a new book by a 1979 Emory & Henry College graduate.

During the Great Depression, making liquor was the only way many Appalachian farmers could pay their bills, according to Charles Thompson, who has written the soon-to-be-released book “Spirits of Just Men.”

In Appalachia in the 1930s, more farmers were working their own land than in any region of the country, but their holdings were shrinking dramatically. Moonshine helped these farmers make a last stand on their own property, Thompson said.

In his book Thompson argues that moonshining became an international enterprise with sugar coming from Barbados and Cuba and copper from Arizona and South America. Even the corn itself originated in Central America. In Appalachia, moonshine whiskey had special appeal. “The idea of whiskey being made by mountain people with pure spring water and corn they raised began to have cache as early as the late 1800s,” Thompson said.

The moonshine industry was also propelled by Prohibition, which sought to eliminate all means of alcohol production, thus inspiring the production of bootlegged whiskey. Law enforcers charged with turning off the whiskey spigot were many times the very people encouraging it, Thompson says.

“In some counties, when law enforcement officials realized that there were many people desperate to make a dollar, they not only began to charge their neighbors for every load produced, they helped many people procure stills and start making whiskey.”

Thompson, a professor of documentary studies at Duke University, began his research for the book in 2004 with a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. A native of Franklin County, Virginia, he conducted more than 30 in-depth interviews with people who grew up in the region.

“I really started collecting stories and memories from the community I write about when I was a child, so for that reason I often tell people I’ve been collecting material for this book all my life.”

The title of the book is replete with double meaning. The word “spirits” refers to the memories of ancestors who inhabit the story as well as the alcoholic spirits from which they made their living. The word “just” refers to the notion that moonshiners were doing the best they could with what they had. They were no better and no worse than others, Thompson explains.

“They were just regular people making do in the throes of an adverse economy. Some of the moonshiners I write about didn’t even drink alcohol.”