Monday, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, acting on a team from a “influential member of the community,” executed a search warrant which resulted in the confiscation of an undisclosed number of gallons of moonshine.
The year we are speaking of is 2015, in case you were wondering if this account was one of those “On This Date in History” items often found in newspapers.
Moonshine, which lubricated the colorful history of the South and Appalachia, particularly in the Prohibition years of 1920-1933, still exists, as evidenced by this week’s Monroe County raid.
In 2014, agents from the Mississippi Department of Revenue (in the 1920s, they were called Revenuers) busted 11 moonshine stills, arrested 25 alleged “moonshiners” and executed 121 search warrants that resulted in 116 cases where “white lightning” was confiscated.
Here in the South, where law-and-ordered remains a much venerated ideal, we are somehow less than outraged by this particular brand of criminal conduct.
When we hear of a meth lab bust or, perhaps, the discovery of a marijuana crop, many of us demand sure, swift and severe punishment. A raid on a moonshine still? We are as inclined to grin at the thought, for it conjures up images of an era thought to be long passed. The idea that there are people out there somewhere in the woods making moonshine certainly doesn’t keep us up at night.
The whole idea of moonshine resonates on a multitude of levels, most all of them nostalgic.
NASCAR traces its lineage to the Southern moonshine runners who blistered the roads between the remote illegal distilleries that dotted the South and the booze-starved cities of the North, cops in hot pursuit.
But even the backwater moonshiner who may never had driven anything more than mule hitched to a wagon enjoys a certain slightly exalted status, for two primary reasons.
First, he emerged most prominently where two historic eras in American History converged — Prohibition and The Great Depression. Where once he might have been regarded as a petty criminal, the moonshiner became something of an anti-hero during the hard years. The bad guys became heroes and the authorities the villains.
Farmers whose property were seized by banks when they couldn’t pay their notes, didn’t weep for the bankers when the much-romanticized gangsters of the era emptied their vaults. Likewise, when Prohibition reigned, the backwater moonshiner was suddenly the only available source for liquor, all legal sources having been put out of business by the cold, remorseless government. The moonshiner provided a valued service to an parched and unrepentant public.
Second, the moonshiner also stands as a symbol in the fight against government overreach. They were, perhaps, the nation’s first true libertarians. When the government first began to regulate the production of alcohol (i.e., they taxed it), the result was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, a short-lived uprising put down by George Washington and a group of 30,000 militiamen that represented the first real test of federal authority. Today, we are still fighting over just how much the federal government should encroach on our personal affairs. The moonshiner, then, has been seen as something as a defiant defender of liberty.
So we can’t really bring ourselves to loathe the moonshiner as we do others who trade in illegal substances.
While there are still some moonshiners who skirt the law, some Southern states have made it legal to produce moonshine, which is defined these days as an unaged white liquor. This legal moonshine is available in liquor stores and you can find everything you need to operate your own distillery on the Internet. In Kentucky, there is even Moonshine University, where people can learn and improve their moonshine-making skills.
Somehow, though, the idea of legal moonshine seems to take all of the romance out of the idea.
We have a fixed image of the moonshiner, a miscreant it is true, but a largely benign one at that.
While we stop well short of hoping the moonshiners evade the traps laid for them by the modern-day equivalent of the revenuers, if they manage to slip away, well. That’s sort of OK, too.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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