An Industry in Decline?

Now times have changed in our county,
and not much shine’s being made,
But we’re the moonshine capital of the world,
and it’s time to find a new trade.

--Fourth verse of the song “Moonshine Heritage, by Jason Hambrick


Obviously not all these men were on hand to work this brandy-making still.  An apple mill for crushing apples into pumice sits to the left.  Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1920.

No one can estimate how many gallons of illegal alcohol have left the Virginia Blue Ridge unnoticed over the years, but various government and business records point to a gigantic whiskey trade in moonshining’s heyday.  For instance, during the 13 years of Prohibition (1920 to 1933) agents in Franklin County alone destroyed 3,909 stills, made 1,669 arrests, and seized over 716 vehicles along with 130,717 gallons of alcohol.  In 1926 Agent L. E. Bridges reported the following from raids in Franklin, Floyd, and Patrick Counties over 14 months:

Captured and destroyed – 337 stills; 1,713 fermenters; 334 wood doublers; 333 flake stands; 563 metal wash tubs; 493 buckets; 153 hoes; 28 mattocks; 249,750 gallons beer; 3,773 gallons whiskey; 90 gallons brandy. Confiscated – 19 automobiles, 4 wagons, 5 horses, 3 mules, 4 sets double harness.

The number of stills per site has risen since moonshiners have adopted the blackpot technique of mixing mash directly in the large submarine boilers.  Here revenue officers pose with 20 800-gallon submarine stills before destroying them.  Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1970s.
The number of stills per site has risen since moonshiners have adopted the blackpot technique of mixing mash directly in the large submarine boilers.  Here revenue officers pose with 20 800-gallon submarine stills before destroying them.  Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1970s.

Evidence gathered for the Franklin County moonshine conspiracy trial of 1935 showed that from 1930 to 1935 more than 1,000,000 five-gallon whiskey storage cans were sold in the county.  During that same period the county used 37 tons of yeast (nine times what the city of Richmond used) and 16,920 tons of sugar.

With the rise of the submarine still and then blackpot distilling techniques, fewer moonshiners were needed to make significant amounts of alcohol.  Raids by agents have dropped steadily since the 1940s, but the number of boilers found per still site has risen.  In recent years agents in Franklin County have rarely raided more than ten still sites per year.

Though once a large industry, moonshining has been shrinking in the Virginia Blue Ridge.  Operation Lightning Strike, a major bust centered in Franklin County from 1999 to 2001, revealed that the primary local company selling bootleggers their supplies annually bought more than 500 tons of sugar and 125,000 one-gallon plastic jugs over a four-year span in the 1990s.  However, even these amounts show a decline in moonshining; the same company had purchased 2,500 tons of sugar per year in the 1980s. 

This steam operation ran in the lower level of a dairy barn until it was raided.  Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.
This steam operation ran in the lower
level of a dairy barn until it was raided. 
Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

Only a few moonshine-related arrests have been made in the region since Operation Lightning Strike.  The application of conspiracy laws, the use of electronic surveillance techniques, and improved methods for tracking the flow of money have made illegal distilling a riskier business.  Large-scale moonshining may never return to the Virginia Blue Ridge.  However, some local officials feel that the shift in law enforcement priorities toward other areas of crime over the last few years may be setting the stage for the moonshine industry to grow once again.

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