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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

WHITE LIGHTNING

by Clay Coppedge
There was a time in Central Texas when if you asked a man how much he expected to make off his corn crop that year he might say, "About 10 cents a gallon."

The time would have been the early part of the 20th century, especially during the decades of prohibition and the Great Depression. The place would have been just about anywhere: Tennessee Valley, Stillhouse Hollow or even downtown Temple.

Though not everybody is in agreement over how Stillhouse Hollow got its name, the most popular explanation is that the hollow (or "holler" as it was commonly pronounced) was named for the illegal whiskey stills situated there.

Moonshining, in Texas and elsewhere, reached its peak during prohibition, from 1919 to 1933. Prohibition made it illegal to manufacture or consume alcoholic beverages, but moonshiners viewed more often as folk heroes as outlaws. "Thunder Road" and a whole sub-genre of Hollywood moonshine movies depicted moonshiners as dashing and daring young men with a lot of common sense, fast cars and considerable driving skills. The "infernal" revenuers were most often portrayed as insensitive buffoons.

Accurate or not, this is how a lot people viewed the illicit manufacture of whiskey in the 1920s, 30s and beyond.

During hard times, moonshining was considered not only profitable but also a more honorable pursuit than going on relief or standing in welfare lines. Local news accounts of the day often took a wink-and-a-nod approach when reporting raids on illegal stills.

A Feb. 25 story in the Telegram about a large raid about 10 miles southeast of Granger mentioned a man found the previous night "in possession of the treasured beverage."

A Jan. 13, 1920 story about a raid in downtown Temple began this way: "Yesterday morning a raid was made at 302 South Third Street, Temple, when a complete still plant and a liberal supply of corn whiskey material, together with some pretty good finished product, were found."

A Dec. 23, 1928 caption under a photo of a just-raided still concluded with, "The stills in the picture ranged in capacity from five gallons to 250. An order was issued by Judge Lewis H. Jones for their destruction. Merry Christmas!"

Making good moonshine - as opposed to the rotgut variety - was not necessarily easy work, even without the threat of revenuers and G-men.

The discerning whiskey maker took about 50 pounds of sugar and mixed it with the same amount of corn chops and 35 gallons of water. Then he let it ferment or "rot" for about a week. Once the sour mash stopped bubbling and turned blue, it was ready to be distilled.

A good still produced 45-65 gallons of "white lightning" a week.

Discerning brewers put the whiskey in charred oak barrels for several days, where it absorbed the color and flavor of the charcoal. Others added personal touches like oak chips, peaches, apples, caramel, honey or rock candy. Dr Pepper was said to be an especially popular additive.

More dastardly distillers might add lye, which made the brewing process faster but caused painful swelling of anyone unfortunate enough to lay hands on "lye whiskey."

Sometimes the mixture was routed through automobile radiators and spiked it with battery acid, which took several days off the distilling time and several years off the consumer's life.

It was a good idea to know your moonshiner.

Today you can almost spot the places where moonshine was most likely made, but only if you can get to them. Many of the places where moonshine was made are almost as remote and undeveloped now as they were during white lightning's heyday.

Any stills that existed at Stillhouse Hollow are long gone now, buried under the waters of the reservoir by the same name. They were probably gone long before the lake was created. The repeal of Prohibition took away most of the profit motive for moonshine, and World War II sent a lot of its customers overseas.

The late Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert once described Stillhouse Hollow, just before it was inundated by the waters of Stillhouse Hollow Lake, as an "ancient bootlegging community." He suggested the new lake be named "Bootlegger's Lake."

Madie Smith, a long-time columnist for the Telegram, fired back in one of her columns that not only did Stillhouse House Hollow not have any stills, but it wasn't even a community.

"It's a beautiful hollow fringed with cedar trees and in a few years its beauty and stillness will be reflected in the blue waters of the lake that back up to it," she wrote.

But Ms. Smith did not deny that illicit whiskey operations existed in Bell County.

"That passel of old timers who sure-nuff operated private industries with products bottled in fruit jars up in the Bee Rock (Sparta) area on the upper reaches of the Leon River up to less than 50 years ago - well, sir, they'd turn over in their graves at being left out," she added.

"They were downright proud of the potency of their product and the fruit-jar-rim marks on the noses of their regular customers."

Moonshine is making a dramtic comeback these days, not as a beverage but as an alternative fuel. Today, it's called ethanol. But trust us on this -- don't try to drink it.


Clay Coppedge

"Letters from Central Texas"

June 30, 2007 Column

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