The final History Talks program for the year at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History on Saturday featured author and Appalachian State University history professor Bruce Stewart
The talk focused around Stewart’s book “Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: the Battle Over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia.”
Matt Edwards, executive director for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, said he was pleased with the turnout for the last of the History Talks series programs this year.
“We had a great turnout for the lecture this week. It was one of our best attended History Talks of the year,” Edwards said. “I think it’s always great to see a speaker engage the audience and to think outside the box. Dr. Stewart did exactly that with regards to the history of moonshining in Appalachia.”
Stewart talked about how the media influenced the way that moonshiners were perceived.
“They would exaggerate about the people of Appalachia to sell papers or magazines. Folks, we’ve got moonshine all over this country, but journalists wrote about moonshine as being a problem of isolation — in a place with no churches or schools. They said that all of the people in the Appalachia region were moonshiners and there was something wrong with their genetics. They said they were big-boned people that were not accustomed to civilization,” said Stewart.
Edwards echoed his comments.
“People generally think of moonshiners from the standpoint of Snuffy Smith or Thunder Road, but this talk was a great way to explore the early days of moonshining in our region,” Edwards said.
Stewart explained that in the early days of moonshining or distilling alcohol, it was a way for Scots-Irish immigrants to transport their agricultural products. He said for those who were growing corn in the late 1700s and early 1800s, crops would spoil before they could get it to market. He said that one mule could carry the equivalent of 24 bushels of corn when it was distilled into moonshine.
He explained that they could get paid the same amount for one bushel of corn as they would for one gallon of whiskey.
He also said that when people started distilling corn, there was no stigma attached to drinking alcohol, but they did have a problem with drunkenness. He said that alcohol had a role in socializing and was used as medicine.
Stewart said in 1862, the government established a federal liquor tax, but it wasn’t until 1877 that the government started cracking down on those who wouldn’t pay their tariffs on distilled liquor. That era was when the Moonshine Wars began. That year 2,000 illegal stills were found and the government realized that non-taxed moonshine was costing them $2.5 million. In 1877, there were 308 convictions, and in 1879, there were 801 moonshine-related convictions.
He said in 1880, there was a rise in the temperance movement and people began to think that drunkenness and consumption of alcohol was evil. He likened it to what people of today think of people who smoke marijuana or who make and use methamphetamines.
In 1908, North Carolina made moonshine illegal, but the national prohibition act didn’t come into play until 1920.
“People who missed today’s program will have another chance to learn about moonshining in our region on Jan. 19 at our White Liquor and Dirt Tracks program. We will have a number of related programs during that event,” Edwards said.
For more information about the Mount Airy Museum of Regional of History, go to www.northcarolinamuseum.org or call 786-4478.
Reach Mondee Tilley at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1930.