By the Light of the Moon: Making 'Shine in Shelby County
Moonshine is named after the “lesser light that governs the night.” Nocturnal brewing had nothing to do with adding flavor or potency and everything to do with “revenooers,” government agents collecting excise taxes and jailing unlicensed distillers. President Washington became the first revenuer when he put down the “Whiskey Rebellion” of Pennsylvania distillers who thought taxing liquor was against their rights.
The growth of moonshine as a “liquid crop” is often blamed on the 1919 national law known as Prohibition that banned intoxicating liquors. But in Alabama, as early as 1907, 58 of the 67 counties were already “dry.” Consequently, Alabama’s illicit alcohol production was ahead of the nation. Prohibition, however, took it to a whole ‘nother level.
For Shelby County moonshiners, aka bootleggers, the prime market was rapidly growing Birmingham just up the newly completed Florida Short Route (now old Highway 280). Skilled producers, increased demand, and the Florida Short Route were a lucrative combination.
Moonshiners hid their little factories, or “stills,” deep in the hollows of the hills and ridges of north Shelby County. Some stills even had multiple flues that dispersed the smoke to avoid detection. The area now known as Oak Mountain State Park was a hiding place for many stills.
In the South, the primary ingredients of moonshine spirits were corn and sugar. The moonshiners were typically farmers who grew their own corn but bought the sugar at their local general store. Moonshiners spread their purchases to multiple stores, lest they tip off government agents by their lopsided sugar consumption. Store owners tacitly supported the moonshiners by keeping much more sugar on hand than needed for sweet tea.
In the moonshiners’ defense, farming was a hardscrabble occupation in the first half of the 1900s, particularly during the Great Depression. Often the men would follow logging operations, share-crop, or work whatever menial jobs they could find to feed their families. The temptation to live outside the law must have been strong.
If you hike along the base of the mountains in the Dunnavant Valley, you might stumble across a crumbling stone chimney of a former still. It’s all that’s left of the once thriving cottage industry enabled by the Florida Short Route.
Published in Dunnavant Valley Neighbors, August 2022