Moonshine: Now Showing Up in More Than Mason Jars

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Hosea Thomas’ still site on Shooting Creek, Franklin County, VA, 1915. (Courtesy Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College, Franklin County Bicentennial Collection)

The Wettest Country in the World, a 2008 novel by Virginia author Matt Bondurant, derives from his grandfather’s and uncles’ tales of life during Prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia. The novel has been recently interpreted by Hollywood in the form of Lawless, a violent and gritty film that opened in August (2012) and takes on the consequences of making moonshine, in this case when the Bondurant brothers’ bootlegging business is threatened by corrupt authorities.

The Great Moonshine Conspiracy,” is a radio documentary, funded in part with VFH grant support, based on the true story of high-ranking officials who were indicted for illegal alcohol production—making moonshine—in Franklin County during Prohibition. The radio piece is drawn from Duke anthropologist Charles Thompson, Jr.’s remembrances of his own grandfather’s stories of farming and bootlegging. These stories are chronicled in Thompson’s 2011 non-fiction account, Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World, which was partially written while Thompson was a Fellow in residence at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

“For struggling hillside farmers, moonshine was a path out of poverty. For powerful men, it was an opportunity to get rich on the backs of those farmers.”

Independent journalist Jesse Dukes and Jennifer Deer, both of Big Shed Audio and Media, in collaboration with Thompson, who directs the Undergraduate Program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, have produced a 16-minute, audio documentary that tells how the cultures of making illegal alcohol, farming, economy and politics in Franklin County were intertwined during the 1920s and ‘30s. Using interviews, archival recordings, and readings of contemporary accounts, the documentary tells the story as it played out in the community of Endicott, Thompson’s hometown, and how it culminated in a major scandal for dozens of Franklin County officials, charged with conspiracy.

“For struggling hillside farmers, moonshine was a path out of poverty. For powerful men, it was an opportunity to get rich on the backs of those farmers,” notes the Center for Documentary Studies, in a web posting about the radio show. “In the most mountainous parts of the county, nearly every farming family was involved in the making and selling of illegal whiskey. In 1935, over two hundred farmers testified about their role in the massive racket resulting in the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial.”

The radio documentary is airing nationally on various NPR stations, and can also be heard here.

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