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Skagit River Journal

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Ralph Parker, of Lyman talks about
moonshine, the Carolina Bead and outrunning the High Sheriff

By Ron Strickland, River Pigs and Cayuses, 1984
      For generations the manufacture of moonshine, homemade untaxed alcohol, has been an essential part of one kind of rural economic survival. It was so important two centuries ago that western Pennsylvania farmers took up arms in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion against the new federal government's attempts to tax their easily transported liquid corn. Today the fiery drink is made by more sophisticated equipment and its makers apprehended by ever more ingenious devices. Ironically, as the energy crisis worsens the US. government may begin to promote home distilling — for gasohol.
      The Prohibition Era was moonshine's heyday, and the Southern Appalachians its capital. Carolina Tarheel Ralph "Stogie" Parker began his career as a master moonshiner in the 1920's because, he says, that was the only way many mountain men knew to feed their families. Stogie moved to Lyman, Washington, at the beginning of World War II and became a logger.
      He and many other Carolina immigrants brought with them an Appalachian thirst for moonshine not easily satisfied in the Northwest. For awhile Stogie helped to meet that demand. But after his arrest a few years ago he switched to raising hounds and vegetables. Now, at 74, f he wants some of the heady drink in the Mason jar, he has to buy it from somebody else. Ralph Parker is a stocky, intense man whose descriptions of old feuds, murders, and battles with the "high sheriff' are delivered with a burning flame of enmity quite unknown in TV comedy versions of this popular subject. For some in the '20s moonshine meant survival — and it was not a laughing matter to people like Ralph Parker.

      I tell you, you can make lots of money here in logging work, but if you've got a little farm back in Carolina, you can live better than here. I make enough in my garden now to feed three families. Of course, I go to the store and buy what I want, but I'd rather have stuff like I was raised on. Beans. Peas. Carrots. I've got that whole garden planted in 'em.
      We made an easier living back in the '20s than we do now. Now whiskey's twenty-five dollars a gallon and the most you could get for it then was four dollars. But you could buy all the sugar you wanted then for thirty cents a pound. I could buy more with five dollars then than you can buy with fifty right now. Another thing, living back in them hills, we didn't need no money to amount to nothin'. Sugar. Flour. And coffee. The rest of it we growed. I've seen times when we had five hundred head of hogs running loose in the woods. Cattle and sheep. And them bear was better'n beef.
      Three of us went to making whiskey in '25. But a lot of the time I was by myself. That's the way we fed our families through the Depression. There wasn't noth in' else to do then. No money and no way to get none. In Jackson County, North Carolina, Sylva was the big town, the county seat. Our post office was Rich Mountain. The guy who had the store down on the river would bring me all my sugar and corn, groceries, whatever I needed, and take whiskey to pay for it. Then he resold it, of course. And I'd sell a gallon here and there to fellas passing by.

Carolina whiskey has a different bead on it
      Carolina whiskey has a bead on it like a bird's eye. A bubble that stays right around the edge of the jar. The corn is what makes the bead. In a fifty-gallon barrel we put a half bushel of corn meal and half a bushel of sprouted, ground-up corn malt. And we'd put a half bushel of rye in there to cap it. Then put fifty pound of sugar and you'll get about eleven, twelve gallon of whiskey out of a fifty-gallon barrel. Corn and sugar and rye. We made the beer in a barrel, then run it through a copper still for about thirty-six hours. Build a wood fire in the furnace and boil it till nothing but whiskey come out. Hundred and forty and eighty proof. Then we'd proof it down to about a hundred proof to drink it.
      We'd run two runs a week. One about Tuesday and on Friday night. And we'd get anywhere from eleven to fourteen gallon out of a fifty-gallon barrel of beer. It finally went up to four dollars a gallon. I run them revenooers a lotta races. They cut down my still one time. But I got away and they couldn't catch me. I was used to follering them hound dogs, so I was fast.
      When they busted it up I had two barrels of beer. But I was gone before they got there. A guy told me they was gonna raid it. Later they come by with thatsill on their backs. I knowed that high sheriff. He was a blockader and a bootlegger till he got in as sheriff. He said, "If anybody claims this, I'll give it to 'im." I said, Bill, you're a smart sonofabitch, ain't ya? They had an idea it was mine, but they couldn't prove it.
      Back then I didn't go nowhere 'cause it was twenty-one mile to town from where I lived. The post office was in a store just two mile below home. We made what we ate and we made what we wore. We had our own looms and spinning wheels. We had sheep and cattle, pigs in the woods. And we bear-hunted with a bunch of bear dogs. My dad was the greatest hunter in North Carolina. We'd kill lots of bear. They're good eating. And coons. Back there, ain't nothing better'n a coon to eat.

Winning races with the High Sheriff
      We was coon hunting and the high sheriff could see our lights on them hills. So he got to laying along the road where he figured we'd come down. That sonofabitch just thought that badge made him a king. We were walking down the highway with two coons and he jumped out on us and I beat hell out of him and throwed his gun away. He took us to court and I beat him 'cause he'd caught us on the state highway. I told him if he ever came back around I'd kill him.
      My first cousin Demos Woods, Gus was his nickname, and that sheriff had a still up there together. A big one — three hundred gallon. After he got to be sheriff Bill sent Gus word that he was coming out to cut their still down. Gus told him,
      "You're in Sylva now. You stay down there and run that, and I'll run this up here." So Bill went out there one Sunday and sent a deputy sheriff to ask Gus to come down the road and talk to him. But Gus knowed him and knowed he was dirty. He said he got to studying it and got his shotgun and went around the back where he could see around the curve. He saw the sheriff sitting there with a .30-30 across his lap waiting for him to come down the road. So Gus shot his head off and rolled him off the road. Then he took off and they hunted for him.
      Well, he had ten gallon of whiskey buried there at his shack. They had a bench warrant for him and he said he knowed they'd get him. He sneaked in there one evening, opened up that keg and drunk just as long as he could drink a drop. They found him laying on the porch passed out. He told the judge, "I knowed that was the only way I'd ever get to town alive." Well, they gave him thirty years. That was in '29, I believe.
      Five revenooers were sent into the mountains one time to a place they called Nigger Skull. Never did find 'em. Then they sent in two detectives. Never did find them either. Revenooers wouldn't go back in there after that. Nothing but dead end roads, sled roads, horse roads, for thirty miles into town. Wasn't no cars. I had the first T-model that ever went up in there.
      A lotta them old guys had never been to town. They wasn't mean, them sonofabitches. They was crazy. None of 'em ever went to school in their damn life. In 1942 1 was working for the state, driving a truck at Waynesville, North Carolina. They shut that down and wanted us all to go to Pearl Harbor. My boss man went and he tried to get me to go. But I wouldn't. My dad and brother was up here so I come here in place of going to Pearl Harbor, and I been here ever since.

Us Tarheels took over the woods from the Swedes
      I was logging fallen timber when I come out here. There was only Swedes here then, but us Tarheels took it over. When I come here me and my brother went up there on the hill and got a half gallon from an old guy. I wouldn't drink it. Didn't have no bead on it like Carolina whiskey. I couldn't drink the whiskey here. They made it out of bolted meal. That doesn't make good whiskey. Mill run was the name of it. It's corn meal that's been run through the mills. Bolted to keep it from molding or musting. They run it through some kind of presser and take the heart out of it. Takes all the strength out of it is what it does. Back in Carolina, if you get corn meal, it's pure stuff.
      Oh, them guys made a lot of whiskey. They had a flood here one time and water was all over the place. Old Pinty Metcalf [most often recalled as Piney] had a ten gallon keg of whiskey. Everybody was a-leaving town, and they went down after Pinty. He said, "Wait, I ain't a-going till I get me one more drink." He poured him out a bottle out of that keg.
      They got him up on the hill, but he slipped off and come back. He wasn't gonna leave his whiskey even though the water was coming right up in his house. Making whiskey was all Pinty ever done, back up on that crick, our old watershed. We had the best water in the world here. It come out of them mountains. But that cottonpicker company, they logged it all off and we ain't got no more watershed. We get our water out of a pump now.

Then I got caught
      When I come here I'd quit fooling with whiskey but after I'd retired from logging I had nothing to do. Aw, it was easy money. That was the reason I was doing it. A guy come here to make whiskey and I showed him how. Hell, he was making good whiskey. Not that old mill run. He bought corn from east of the mountains. He set up a still in an old cheese factory that had been abandoned for years. A big cement building. He used stainless steel cause it won't burn like copper. All automatic. He'd just turn it on in the morning and go off and leave it. At a certain temperature it'd shut itself off. He didn't have to be around there or nothing. When they raided his still he had twelve hundred gallon of beer and five hundred gallon of whiskey.
      Well, I sold a lot of it. But I had two or three stool pigeons turning me in all the time here. A man would get drunk on wine and beer and these damn women would accuse him of buying moonshine. One time three women went to the sheriff to complain that their husbands were getting moonshine from me and staying drunk. Nary a one of 'em did buy any. One of 'em did steal a gallon once out of my briar patch. He tore that briar patch all to pieces and found that gallon I'd left in there. He stayed drunk for two or three days and that's where his wife got the idea I'd sold him moonshine. If I'da caught him, he'd still be in that briar patch.
      And these tavern guys, they was knocking me. Said I was a-hurting their business. Two of them turned me in. That's how it got started, and it kept getting worse. It wound up there was six of them Federals hanging around here. Well, I wouldn't sell nobody a drop here. Too close to home. Guys come from way off to get whiskey. But I just got too damn careless.
      Two guys kept hanging around here. I told my partner, Dolan, a guy who was selling it with me, I told him they were FBI men. He didn't believe it. He was a goofy kind of a guy. He'd walk right up to a preacher in town and ask if he wanted to buy a gallon. Dolan's truck was tore down, so he come and got mine and put five gallon in it. We went up the road to sell to those fellas who were waiting on us up there.
      When that undercover agent took the whiskey out of my truck he opened up the back of his old panel wagon and there was two more FBI men in there. They got out and one of 'em drawed a gun. They throwed us in jail that night but I got out the next morning. Five hundred dollar bond. I ain't gonna get in trouble with no more whiskey. I quit. I'm too old to fool with it. I ain't seen no moonshine since then. Nobody makes it anymore around here.

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Story posted on Dec. 31, 2009 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
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