Friday, April 15, 2011
Still talking moonshine
Former revenuer will be among those telling tales and swapping stories at Sunday's Moonshine Express.
Jack Powell, a former agent with the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board, has written about his experiences in three books, including his most recent, "A Dying Art III." Powell will be on hand for Sunday's Moonshine Express, a bus tour that stops at multiple locations around Franklin County, where interpreters and characters tell stories about illegal whiskey from both sides of the law.
Courtesy Franklin County Historical Society
Interpreters (from left) Donna Harris, Gladys Taylor and Herbert Jones helped tell the stories of moonshining in Franklin County during an earlier Moonshine Express.
Those in the business of tracking down makers of illegal whiskey in southwest Virginia may be getting a little help from an unexpected source: Smith Mountain Lake.
According to Jack Powell of Roanoke, a retired "revenuer" and author of three books on moonshining, the lake's development has put a damper on would-be distillers and traders of liquor outside the law.
"You've got the lake and that means moonshiners are running out of real estate," said Powell. "It's covered up a lot of territory that they had as a haven at one time."
Franklin County holds the dubious distinction of being "Moonshine Capital of the World," a title bestowed during Prohibition and one that was most deserved, said Powell, who worked as an agent with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board for more than 30 years.
"It sure was -- at least in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s," he said.
The lay of the land with its valleys and rolling hills, and, some say, the independent spirit of its population, made the region a natural place for producing whiskey and eluding the tax collector.
"It goes back to when the settlers arrived in the Appalachian region and found places with lots of pines and forest in these counties -- they got a lot of hiding places," Powell said.
Powell joined the ABC in 1957. Although he worked out of the Roanoke office, whose base of operation extended west to Wytheville, he was never far from the center of action -- Franklin County.
"I helped out in Franklin County whenever they needed extra help, which was about every day," Powell recalled.
Powell retired in 1991 with profound knowledge of the history and the local characters involved in moonshining and with a slew of stories, which he has shared in three books.
"Dying Art I," was published in 2006, "Dying Art II" was released in 2009, and the last, "Dying Art III," which came out in 2010, includes Powell's recollections of some of the biggest raids in these parts.
He'll be on hand telling those stories, reliving those raids and signing his books at Sunday's Moonshine Express, a bus tour that traces the county's history of moonshining through stories told by characters and interpreters.
One of Powell's favorite stories involves a raid off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd County in 1957. Agents, including the fledgling Powell, confiscated the largest steam still ever found in Floyd County and about 500 gallons of whiskey. Two men were arrested.
"One of them -- Morgan Shiveley -- was from Franklin County," recalled Powell. "He was a super guy who had been caught about seven times before."
Powell said Shiveley, 42, and his partner in crime, Henry Sigmon of Ferrum, went on trial in a federal courthouse in Roanoke later that year.
"They had the Davis brothers from Franklin County as their attorneys," he recalled. "We had government people there to keep the defendants from going in the toilet with moonshine whiskey in their overalls and trying to drink it."
Seated on the front row in the courtroom, said Powell, were Shiveley's wife, mother, father, children and other relatives, who had been called as character witnesses. The defendant, in a new pair of overalls, stood before the judge and when it came time to speak, he asked to be sent to a federal penitentiary, which housed liquor offenders, in West Virginia.
"'Your honor, I want to learn a trade,'" Powell recalled Shiveley saying. "'I don't know anything but how to make whiskey. I assure you, once I learn a trade, I won't be back,'" he continued.
A tentative judge gave Shiveley probation and told him: "You come back in here, your show will be over."
Shiveley's fellow defendant followed suit and his attorney asked for probation for his client.
"Mr. Sigmon, you've been caught 15 times, what say you?" the judge asked.
"I'm as sorry as I can be," Sigmon replied.
All the remorse got Sigmon was a trip to the pen. Powell said when Sigmon was released, he returned to moonshining.
As far as Powell knows, that was not the case with Shiveley.
"I never heard of him being in the liquor business again," said Powell.
But there have been plenty of others who have been and still are. There has been a resurgence of moonshining in recent years, Powell said. The comeback has been triggered by a poor economy, he added.
"There's always somebody out here in the woods looking after this business; somebody's going to do it; somebody out here will try to outwit the law," said Powell.
One person who wasn't able to outsmart ABC agents was an alleged moonshiner in nearby Henry County. The man was arrested after advertising a still for sale on eBay.
According to Powell, the perpetrator was a pale imitation of the stealth moonshiners he once came into contact with.
"Real moonshiners, they're not that dumb," he said. "They're smart and they're clever and never would have done that."
What: Bus tour featuring characters and interpreters who tell stories about the production of illegal liquor in Franklin County. Sponsored by Franklin County Historical Society
When: Sunday, April 17. First bus leaves at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Rocky Mount Municipal Buildling, 345 Donald Ave. Rocky Mount
Cost: $14; tickets can be purchased by phone or at the Franklin County History Museum, 460 S. Main St., Rocky Mount. Advanced ticket purchase recommended.
Information: 483-1890 or firstname.lastname@example.org