Sunday, January 13, 2013
Tales of moonshine in Franklin County
Books by a former moonshiner and a former Franklin County reporter describe their run-ins with the liquor business.
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
Longtime Franklin County journalist Morris Stephenson, pictured here outside of his office in Rocky Mount, has recently self-published a book about moonshining in Franklin County. The book is titled: "A Night of Makin' Likker Plus Other Stories from the Moonshine Capital of the World.
Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times
Photo taken January 9, 2013 Frank Mills, 75, of Callaway, is legally blind and has recently published a book by the Franklin County Historical Society on his experiences mooonshining. An excerpt from the Introduction includes these anecdotes: "The workplace was outside in God's beautiful world. "
Photos courtesy of Morris Stephenson
"Virginia's biggest moonshine distillery" was found in Pittsylvania County and destroyed on January 7, 1993. Morris Stephenson accompanied many raids on distillers as a reporter.
Federal ATF and state ABC agents destroyed the "largest Still ever destroyed in Franklin County, Virginia" in December 1972.
In this 1979 photograph, Morris Stephenson poses with portions of the 'cemetery still' moonshine operation discovered in Franklin County that featured 18 800-gallon submarine type stills. Stephenson often stuffed his reporter's notebook inside his pants to free his hands for photography. State ABC agents and federal agents destroyed the stills shortly after the photo was taken.
Moonshiner William Jefferson "Jaybird" Philpott threatened Franklin County newspaperman Morris Stephenson more than once.
The first time occurred in 1966, not long after Stephenson met Philpott face-to-face during a raid on Philpott's still. In those days, Stephenson frequently accompanied agents, state and federal, when they raided moonshining operations in the county.
Stephenson, now 76 years old and mostly retired, said he generally maintained congenial relationships with both moonshiners and revenuers.
"I walked the fence," he said during a recent interview. "I didn't mention to the moonshiners anything the agents said and vice versa."
But "Jaybird" nursed a grudge. Stephenson describes run-ins with the menacing moonshiner and a subsequent decision to carry a handgun in his book, "A Night of Makin' Likker - Plus Other Stories from the Moonshine Capital of the World."
Stephenson's self-published book went on sale in December. That same month, the Franklin County Historical Society published and began selling "Why Moonshine?" the museum's latest collection of stories by Callaway native Frank Mills, 75, a former moonshiner.
The books are quite different. Stephenson, the newspaperman, anchors his "truth is stranger than fiction" stories with facts and colorful firsthand accounts. Mills' book captures in print the rich lore that the legally blind storyteller carries in his head and heart. A couple of Mills' stories include a playful caveat, alerting the reader that he or she will have to decide whether the tale is true. One chapter describes how Jabe Sloan and a cousin decided to swap wives. Sloan quickly regretted the transaction, Mills recounts.
"Jabe figured his cousin wouldn't trade back evenly. So he went to the garden and cut three cabbage heads to give his cousin for boot."
"The stories are based on truth," Mills said recently. "You can't make every word in a story true."
Reports suggest both books are selling well, at least in Franklin County. And those sales indicate that the county's moonshining history still fascinates decades after its heyday.
Roddy Moore is director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College.
"I don't see anything in the near future that suggests a lack of interest in that part of Franklin County's history," Moore said.
Both Moore and Stephenson said attitudes about moonshining in Franklin County have changed. Families whose kinfolk produced and sold corn liquor and apple brandy in years past now seem to embrace with pride the lawbreaking that once might have embarrassed them.
'A Night of Makin' Likker'
In March 1964, Stephenson, a native of Marion, went to work as a reporter/photographer for The Franklin News-Post and The Franklin Gazette.
During Stephenson's first week, state ABC agents Ken Stoneman, Jim Bowman and John Hix invited the new reporter to join them in the field.
"Over the next 18 years, I traveled with the trio, reporting and photographing one raid after another. It seemed like a never-ending occurrence," Stephenson writes in "A Night of Makin' Likker."
Stephenson also met state ABC Agent Jack Powell. Powell's vigorous destruction of backwoods distilleries impressed Stephenson.
"He carried around an ax he called 'Devil.' He'd get up on a still and just go to work, sweat pouring off him," Stephenson said, grinning.
Stephenson always toted a camera on raids. To free his hands for photography, the rail-thin journalist stuffed his reporter's notebook down the front or back of his pants.
On occasion, after moonshiners were arrested and released from jail, they stopped by the newspaper office in Rocky Mount and cordially asked Stephenson for copies of photos he'd shot during the raid on their "still place." He happily obliged.
"Jaybird" Philpott was not one of them.
Stephenson's newspaper story about the 1966 bust of Philpott's operation apparently rankled.
During a chance encounter at a restaurant a month or so later, Philpott locked eyes with Stephenson and said, according to the book, "You got yours coming! I'll get you 'Bumpy Face.'" The nickname referenced acne that the newspaperman still occasionally battled at the time.
A similar threat occurred later. State Trooper W.Q. Overton, who would become the county's sheriff, and other law enforcement officers advised Stephenson to take the threats seriously.
"Not long after, Overton gave me a small, hand-size .25 caliber pistol," Stephenson writes. "I carried the almost-square pistol in my right back pants pocket for about six months."
Stephenson said recently that he stopped packing heat because he "was afraid I was going to become forever known as the guy who shot himself in the butt."
Years later, Philpott was charged with murdering a Bassett man but was himself shot and killed before trial.
Frank Mills lives with his wife, Joyce, in the small house where he was born near Callaway in 1937. One of nine children, Mills was 6 years old when his mother died.
Through the years, Mills worked as a farmer, mechanic and truck driver. He raised catfish. He and Joyce once ran a small restaurant.
Mills' eyesight began to fail in his late 20s. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Today, he said he can distinguish shadows and light but not much else.
Family members write out Mills' stories in longhand as he recites them.
He said he started making moonshine in 1953 or '54.
"For 40 years, I made it off and on," Mills said. "I'd get behind a few dollars on something and I might just get the still out of the barn and make a little."
Somehow, he and Stephenson never crossed paths. That might be because the law never caught Mills making corn liquor or apple brandy.
"I got close to it a time or two," Mills said. "I had to run. I was just fast and lucky. And a lot of times we were going to get raided and someone would let us know. If it got hot on me, I'd back off and lay low for a while and then come back."
He quit making 'shine, he said, "because I was tired of running, tired of looking over my shoulder, and I didn't want no more to drink."
Mills has several other books published and sold by the historical society. Some are collections of poems.
Joyce said her husband composed the verses while walking with his white cane on the narrow stretch of Callaway Road near his home.
"Sometimes he'd keep four or five poems in his head for a whole week," she said.
Mills said he felt motivated to complete the book "Why Moonshine?" to set the record straight about moonshiners. He said some books and movies portray moonshiners as dumb, drunk, ignorant hillbillies.
"A lot of them were good, God-fearing men," Mills observes in the book's introduction.
"A Night of Makin' Likker" sells for $19.95 and can be found online at Lulu.com and in several locations in Franklin County, including the Artisan Center and the museum of the Franklin County Historical Society, both in Rocky Mount. The museum also sells "Why Moonshine?" by Mills for $17.95. The museum's phone number is 540-483-1890.