In the Blue Ridge, as a legendary character rather than as a known individual, the moonshiner holds a folk hero status. Historically he has been portrayed as a poor man simply trying to make a living, and indeed years ago making bootleg whiskey was arguably the most sensible way for some families to keep food on the table during hard times.
When factories brought jobs to the Blue Ridge and economic circumstances became easier, the bootlegger was still seen as a free man “beating the system.” The hypocrisy of the Prohibition era, when everyone from politicians to field laborers continued to drink, only added to the moonshiner’s image. As stock car racing became popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, the liquor hauler’s driving skills also became part of racing folklore (even though liquor haulers rarely became race car drivers).
Today the celebration of Blue Ridge moonshining shows up in the region’s cultural expressions. Musicians write songs about the trade. Craftsmen build detailed models of stills. Local stores sell t-shirts emblazoned with phrases such as “Moonshine Capital of the World.” National magazines and newspapers continue to publish major stories on Blue Ridge moonshining. At least one Virginia town puts on a community event called the “Moonshine Festival.”
The reality of the illegal whiskey trade, however, is far from pleasant. The work has always been hard manual labor, and today’s sugar liquor must be hauled in a risky trip to large urban centers. If he does not get caught, the moonshiner must still hide the money he earns—a trick that grows harder every day. Penalties for illegal distilling can include jail time and the loss of vehicles and real estate. Yet the tradition goes on, smaller than it once was but apparently intriguing enough for some to continue trying.
The moonshine mystique is reflected in various souvenirs produced for the tourist
market over the years. With its vague location, this mid-twentieth century postcard was
generic enough to be sold anywhere in the Blue Ridge or Appalachia.
Still models, such as this one by Oscar Turner, reflect the region’s fascination with its moonshining heritage.
Patrick County, circa 1996.
Many people in the Blue Ridge take pride in its moonshining heritage.
Whitey Taylor, a local stock car racing promoter, put up this
billboard on a major four-lane highway through the region.
Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1980s.