Past Times

Moonshiners kept Johnston County officials busy

January 16, 2014 

Johnston County officials pose with confiscated illegal liquor outside the courthouse in Smithfield in 1951.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE ARCHIVES

Johnston County’s legacy of moonshining presented quite a challenge for lawmen of the region. In 1950, writer Herman D. Lawson reported that the new sheriff was finding Johnston County “hard to dry up.”

Destruction of 600 whiskey stills with a total capacity of 45,000 gallons is the record Sheriff C. L. Denning estimates for himself and his deputies during the 60 months he has been in office.

Johnston County’s top law enforcement officer believes enough whiskey and beer were found on raids during that period to fill a farm pond. At least 300,000 gallons of mash ready to be made into liquor was dumped. Thousands of gallons of whisky distilled for illegal use was poured down the drain.

The stills ranged in size from a one-gallon copper outfit to a 1,500-gallon submarine distillery with two caps. Largest copper still cut down by the officers was a 500-gallon outfit. The biggest bootlegging unit uncovered by the deputies included four 1,000-gallon submarine stills lined side by side like massive coffins.

Most of the stills were concealed in the woods, but distillery sites included barns, tobacco ordering pits, plant beds, cellars and stables. One still was found in a bedroom.

The stills ranged from crudely built to skillfully fashioned. One was equipped with a mobile telephone unit used to warn the operators of the approach of officers. Many were camouflaged to prevent detection from the ground and air.

Bootleggers have been found busy at their art deep in the swamps and within a few hundred feet of busy highways.

Officers have used axes, bricks, cinder blocks and even dynamite in destroying the stills and related equipment.

Whisky has been found hidden in hens’ nests, cook stoves, trap doors in wall and floor, heaters, slop jars and privies. Seventy-five gallons was the largest amount of whisky captured on a single raid.

Most stills were located through “tips,” some whispered into the ears of officers and others spoken out boldly. Sources of information ranged from leading citizens with an honest desire to rid their communities of the illegal traffic to bootleggers desiring to put their competition out of business.

Sheriff Denning says the tips from bootleggers have proved to be the most reliable.

“When a bootlegger – that is, if he’s not drunk – comes in an gives us a tip,” declared the sheriff, “we can be assured almost always of finding the still. The bootlegger’s directions are more definite also.”

The number of stills destroyed by Johnston County deputies aided by township constables is an estimate of the five-year period, but Sheriff Denning reports the average of 10 stills a month is conservative.

Written records of raids made by the sheriff’s office during January and February of this year were kept by Mrs. Cornelia Peedin, secretary in the sheriff’s office. The records show 24 stills were raided during the two months. Approximately 200 gallons of whisky and 7,000 gallons of beer were discovered.

Sheriff Denning admits that as fast as officers can locate and destroy stills new distilleries are put into use. Deputies have returned to a still site shortly after a raid and found another outfit in operation. The N&O 3/12/1950

Moonshine trade wasn’t limited to Johnston County. In 1968, writer Ramona Christopher watched with a Wake moonshiner she called Henry Coy as county ABC officers destroyed his operation.

Deep down a narrow, winding, dirt road full of ruts and holes in a gently sloping pine grove, steam rose from four green-painted submarine type stills. Out of the four, three were galvanized and only one was constructed of copper. Perched on the end of a galvanized still, Henry Coy was dressed in clean, faded Levis, a dungaree jacked, and billed cap. His expression was somber as he watched five ABC men methodically inventory the supplies.

Empty 100-pound sugar bags lay strewn carelessly about. Boxes of Mason jars were stacked near the condenser under a lean-to made of pine logs and covered with pine boughs. Standing near the stills was a bottled gas cylinder. An acetylene torch and empty yeast containers atop the stills completed the scene.

The noise of a gasoline engine pumping water from a nearby stream was silenced by an old automobile muffler. Only an occasional outburst from warblers high in the trees broke the monotone sound of the voices of the men as they worked steadily.

“If there wasn’t so many people around, I would cry,” Henry Coy said dejectedly. It wasn’t remorse from breaking the law which brought tears to Henry’s eyes.

“My conscience doesn’t hurt me,” he explained. “The only hurt I feel is seeing them blow up my still before I even got a chance to make one run off it...” The N&O 12/8/1968

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