Sunday, March 29, 2015
Just Finished Reading - Moonshiners and Prohibitionists
A few weeks ago a friend loaned me the movie Lawless, which chronicles a moonshine war that occurred in Franklin County, Virginia, in the 1930s. I had seen the previews for the film when it originally came out, but hadn't taken the time or effort to see it at the theater, find it online, or rent it. I have to say though, I really enjoyed it. Watching it made me curious to learn more about the struggle in the southern Appalachian Mountains between the moral, political, and economic implications that came with illegal alcohol.
I located Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia (University Press of Kentucky, 2011) at my local library. Its author, Bruce E. Stewart, is a history professor at Appalachian State University, but was not there when I received my education.
Stewart focuses his research on this topic specifically to western North Carolina, but his finding could likely be generalized to most of the southern Appalachian region. I appreciated that Stewart took a long approach to his research into moonshining in that he showed that the practice has roots that go back to the first white settlers into the area in the late-eighteenth century. Steward claims that early distillers were not viewed so much as criminals as much as they were seen as entrepreneurs by their fellow citizens.
However, as alcohol manufacture in the southern Appalachians progressed into the antebellum era, and with its rise in demand, and thus its production, the backlash of temperance movements also emerged. The demands for food during the Civil War also impacted impressions of moonshiners. Corn, a favored and necessary ingredient in whiskey production, grew scarce during the war years. Citizens came to see moonshiners as using the grain for gain rather than helping feed mountain residents, thus causing some resentment.
When federal taxation began to be more strictly enforced during the Reconstruction era, a significant amount of violence emerged among revenue agents and mountain distillers intent on evading the taxes. Examining this particular subject allowed Stewart the opportunity to delve into the "Creation of the Myth of Violent Appalachia and its Consequences, 1878-1890," in chapter six. Industrialization and social dislocation had more to do the violence that emerged in the southern mountains during this era, but many, even some of those who lived there, saw alcohol as main contributor to the violence and started making pushes for its prohibition.
By 1908, North Carolina approved a referendum outlawing the sale and manufacture of alcohol within the state. However, like in other parts of the Union, the demand for illegal alcohol remained, and thus the profitability obtained through it production continued it manufacture - even after prohibition ended. The western North Carolina mountains proved especially advantageous to concealing production and hiding the product's movement to markets.
While Stewart ends the Moonshiners and Prohibitionists story in the 1920s, I think it would have made for an interesting epilogue to show how moonshining and bootlegging influenced the sport of stock car racing in the mid-twentieth century.
I really enjoyed reading Mooshiners and Prohibitionists and learned a lot about the conflict between rural and urban mountain areas over distilling and temperance during this period. I high recommend it for those who are also curious about the subject. On a scale of one to five, I give the book a 4.75.