The Cat and the Mouse

“We find that the use of telephones, firing of guns, ringing of farm bells, blowing of hunting horns, smoke signals, ladies hanging washing on clothes lines and various other signals are . . . preventing captures of stills and operators.” 
--Revenue Agent L. E. Bridges, Franklin County, 1926

A simple way to render a still useless is to cut holes in the sheet metal with an ax.  Revenue Agent V. K. Stoneman watches as a moonshiner reluctantly destroys his own submarine still.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1969.
A simple way to render a still useless is to cut holes in the sheet metal with an ax.  Revenue Agent V. K. Stoneman watches as a
moonshiner reluctantly destroys his own submarine still.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1969.

These idle stills were camouflaged with sticks and leaves so they could not be seen from the air.  Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.
These idle stills were camouflaged
with sticks and leaves so they
could not be seen from the air. 
Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

Once whiskey taxes were created, government agents had to both monitor legal distilleries and stop illegal whiskey makers.  The moonshiner and the revenue agent each knew the other’s tricks fairly well.  In fact, they sometimes knew one another on a first name basis from previous encounters.

Typically a moonshiner would set up a well-hidden still, the law officers would learn about it from an informant (even the bootlegger’s own competitor), and the agents would watch and finally raid the still site.  Officers used axes or dynamite to destroy the still parts and containers.  The hope was to catch the moonshiner at the still site.  If a moonshiner ran, the agents would chase him, but when caught red-handed at the still, the moonshiner often simply accepted his fate.  Rarely was there any violence during a raid.

Traditionally revenue agents most often used axes to destroy illegal distilling equipment.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1975.
Traditionally revenue agents most often used axes to destroy illegal distilling equipment.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1975.

Over the years the players involved in Blue Ridge moonshining developed many ways to avoid being caught.  In the age of outdoor still sites, some bootleggers stretched thread across paths; a broken thread meant agents might be waiting near the still.  When loading and unloading, the moonshiner could stop his truck in the road beside a steep bank, lay a board from the truck bed to the top of the bank, and carry supplies in and out without leaving a noticeable path.

In the era when cash-wage jobs were scarce and people with small mountain farms had few options for earning money, neighbors kept an eye out for revenue agents.  When law officials adopted two-way radios, the bootleggers purchased illegal scanners to monitor police traffic.

The owners of this still tried to camouflage their outfit with spray paint.  Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.
The owners of this still tried to camouflage their outfit with spray paint. 
Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

Efforts to hide stills became more innovative after propane and oil burners replaced wood fires and stills no longer had to be outdoors.  Some buildings featured false walls to hide production or storage areas.  However, most indoor stills were simply set up in a shed, garage, or barn. 

In several instances stills were also set up in underground chambers covered with sod.  Perhaps the most infamous of these was set up in Franklin County in the late 1970s.  Moonshiners bulldozed a room-sized hole in a field, covered it with a sod roof, placed painted cinderblocks on top as fake headstones, mowed the “cemetery” regularly, and put flowers on some “graves.”  Raiding the still in 1979, revenue agents estimated it ran for one or two years before they discovered it.

In recent years agents have set up motion-triggered cameras at still sites.  When the moonshiner returns to run his outfit, the camera records his presence.  The agents have no need to be on hand when the still is operating.

Traditionally the moonshiner bought his worm from a coppersmith.  Today coiled copper pipe can be purchased directly from plumbing supply companies.  Here revenue officer V. K. Stoneman chops a worm into pieces.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1969.
The old-time moonshiner bought his worm from a coppersmith.  Today coiled copper pipe can be purchased directly from plumbing supply companies.  Here revenue officer V. K. Stoneman chops a worm into pieces. 
Franklin County, Virginia, 1969.
When taking down a still, revenue officers destroyed everything a moonshiner might use later, including glass jars.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1965.
When taking down a still, revenue officers destroyed everything a moonshiner might use later, including glass jars. 
Franklin County, Virginia, 1965.

 
 
Good still sites have often been difficult to reach with a wagon, car, or truck.  In such cases moonshiners often carry supplies in on foot.  Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.
Good still sites have often been difficult to reach with a wagon, car, or truck. 
In such cases moonshiners carry supplies in on foot.  Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.
 
Traditionally the moonshiner bought his worm from a coppersmith.  Today coiled copper pipe can be purchased directly from plumbing supply companies.  Here revenue officer V. K. Stoneman chops a worm into pieces.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1969.
Oil and propane gas burners gave liquor-makers
more flexibility in where they could set up a still. 
Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

When taking down a still, revenue officers destroyed everything a moonshiner might use later, including glass jars.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1965.
Mash flows out of submarine stills punctured by revenue agents.  Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.
 
A revenue agent lifts one of the painted cinderblocks that stood as gravestones in Franklin County’s legendary cemetery still.  The operation featured 18 800-gallon submarine boilers hidden beneath a fake cemetery.  The explosives used to destroy the still started a brush fire, but agents doused the blaze with some of the 11,200 gallons of mash on the site.  Franklin County, Virginia, 1979.
A revenue agent lifts one of the painted cinderblocks that stood as gravestones in Franklin County’s legendary cemetery still.  The operation featured 18 800-gallon submarine boilers hidden beneath a fake cemetery.  The explosives used to destroy the still started a brush fire, but agents doused the blaze with some of the 11,200 gallons of mash on the site. 
Franklin County, Virginia, 1979.

Revenue agents pose at the notorious “cemetery still.”  Franklin County, Virginia, 1979.
Revenue agents pose at the notorious “cemetery still.” 
Franklin County, Virginia, 1979.

   
< Back | Next >