Tales of the late Joshua “Percy” Flowers are as plentiful in Johnston County as the pine trees that grow on the land he once called home.
Many who grew up east of Clayton speak freely of his penchant for foxhunting and making bootleg liquor.
Now people are talking about the memoir written by a man who says he is Flowers’ illegitimate son.
Perry D. Sullivan, 51, says “Lost Flowers: True Stories of the Moonshine King, Percy Flowers” is an intimate account of his childhood. Sullivan tells the story through a series of letters to his sons, Josh Perry and John Percy.
“Percy Flowers is a well-known folk hero,” said Sullivan, who lives in Missouri, where he is an airline pilot. “It was just outlandish, some of the stories I would hear, and people didn’t realize who they were talking to. I thought from a historical perspective I would write this book to set the record straight.”
Sullivan says his mother, Beatrice Sullivan, had an affair with Flowers that led to his birth – and several years later to that of his younger sister. His mother wanted children, he says, but her husband, who worked for Flowers managing his country store, was unable to father them.
Sullivan said he has no doubt he is Flowers’ son and that he would never “step out on a limb” without knowing what he was talking about. His paternity was common knowledge among family members, he says.
Flowers, a tobacco farmer who owned 4,000 acres in Johnston County, had two children, Joshua Jr. and Rebecca, with his wife, Delma. Flowers died in 1982 at age 79. His daughter Becky Flowers, now a well-known Clayton developer, declined to comment on Sullivan’s claim.
Sullivan said his book was designed to preserve the historical legacy of Percy Flowers, not to reveal family secrets.
“I feel like society doesn’t look at indiscretion the same way it did 50 years ago,” he said. “It’s a delicate subject with sensitive material. My (half-sister Rebecca) has known about me her whole life. I have the greatest admiration and respect for her.”
On June 29, Sullivan made a promotional appearance in Clayton to introduce the book, which is already a topic of conversation.
“I’ve lived here since 1997 and have always heard stories about Percy Flowers,” said Clayton resident Brenda Pleasant. “He’s iconic.”
Pleasant left the event – held downtown at Deep River Brewery – clutching an autographed copy of the book. She plans to introduce it at her next book club meeting.
Former Clayton resident Troy Page traveled from Cary to attend the signing. Page said he was an acquaintance of Joshua “Percy” Flowers Jr., who was killed in a plane crash in 1952. He said he was curious to meet Sullivan after reading the book.
“This is a well-written book and a true story that needs to be told,” Page said. “The details were amazing.”
“It’s heartwarming to think about Perry growing up in a situation where he could have failed but has now done so well with his life,” attendee Jim Kelleher said. “It’s a wonderful story.”
Sullivan’s book, which is self-published, tells of his Johnston County childhood and time spent with Percy Flowers. He recalls traveling to Virginia and Western North Carolina to attend cockfights and spending weekends foxhunting.
During their time together, Sullivan said, he learned valuable life lessons he hopes to pass along to his own sons, who are 12 and 14.
“To me, he was just my father,” Sullivan said. “I heard all the stories, but I saw him completely different. I was with him every day, and he wasn’t like this big notorious person that people talked about.”
Sullivan says he spent more than a decade working on the memoir; parts of it chronicle Flowers’ foray into the whisky-making business. A 1958 Saturday Evening Post profile called him “King of the Bootleggers,” and IRS agents tracked him for three decades.
Flowers never publicly acknowledged Sullivan or his sister. After Flowers’ death, the country store on N.C. Highway 42 East closed temporarily, leaving Willis Sullivan without a job and forcing the Sullivan family to move.
“When (Flowers) died, my very existence was swept under the mat and never to be heard of again,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, then 19, found a job and put himself through college at East Carolina University. An interest in aviation led him to enlist in the Air Force shortly thereafter, and he spent 21 years flying military jets.
Sullivan now feels the time is right to release a book detailing his family heritage.
The book is available through online retailers, and Sullivan says a movie script is under development.
A portion of proceeds will go to cancer research in memory of Gregory Scott Flowers, a family member who was close to Sullivan.