Smithfield Herald

County officials kept busy pursuing moonshiners

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

Tips from bootleggers

Whisky has been found hidden in hens’ nests, cook stoves, trap doors in walls and floors, 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 and 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.

Rebuilt in a hurry

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