Excerpt: 'Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World' by Charles D. Thompson Jr.


Photograph courtesy of the Blue Ridge Institute of Ferrum College

From the Prologue:

I steered the pickup to a stop on a gravel road alongside a thicket of dried honeysuckle and blackberry canes near Shively Branch in Endicott, Virginia. “It’s right over yonder,” said my grandfather pointing through the brush. I got out in the crisp October air to search while he and my mother waited in the truck. I had to fight through yards of dry briars higher than my head before I found, nearly rotted through, a wooden floor perched on top of stacked rock corners. The roof and the walls had fallen in, leaving a heap of rubble that people afraid of snakes—including the two in the truck—wouldn’t dare go near. I stepped carefully onto the cluttered old floor and overturned some of the loose boards. I found the front door with a porcelain knob and under some old boards a rusted Drink Nehi sign. This was the store I had asked about.

I felt grateful to have made the pilgrimage when we did because Grandpa was in declining health and cold weather was already coming on. I knew he wouldn’t have gone outside to explore in the dead of winter, and I was afraid there might not be another chance. Sadly, I was right. Grandpa died just weeks later, in the early part of December.

I had never met or even seen a picture of my great-grandfather Pete Thompson, the man who had owned that store, and hadn’t exactly wished to, as Grandpa had told me enough about his childhood with this man—of the snow falling on blankets on the boys’ beds upstairs while the old man slept with heat near the kitchen downstairs, of the old man’s drunken rages and the beatings and the verbal abuse, of having to work on the farm for a pittance, and of my grandfather’s pledge to get away as soon as he was able.

Grandpa’s own mother had died in childbirth, and the new Thompson wife and stepmother had no time for the older children. Too many of her own were being born. But Pete Thompson was my ancestor, my own loving grandfather’s father, and I wanted to see this store — and to go there with Grandpa to hear him talk about it.

“What did he sell there?” I asked. He had a little bit of everything, he told me: some dry goods and a few hardware items, some drinks and a few food items. He sold a lot of sweet feed: molasses-soaked grains for cattle and hogs. But most of his profits came from his sales of five-gallon metal cans and fifty- pound bags of sugar, malt, and yeast. He didn’t have to tell me these items were for the bootlegging trade, the business that people back in the store’s heyday in the 1920s and through the Great Depression of the 1930s sometimes called blockading. But I pressed for a few more details. “Liquor was the only way people had to make a dollar,” was about all he said that day. Maybe it was because my mother was along. Maybe it was because the memories were of a hard, hard time. No chuckles or jokes—just a look of pity on his face about his people who had lived in poverty. He had a way of choking up when he talked about people and hard living. “They had it rough,” he said.

Moonshine is what we call it today, and you see references to it everywhere in Franklin County, Virginia. T-shirts and ball caps emblazoned with the slogan Moonshine Capital of the World are for sale in all the convenience stores. The local historical society in Rocky Mount promotes moonshine lore and history today as a central part of the county’s heritage, with tours and reenactments. Also, Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute and Museum has long collected and displayed stills and other liquor paraphernalia as part of their folklore collection. Their exhibition White Liquor—Blue Ridge Style was their most popular ever. You don’t grow up with connections to Franklin County and fail to know something about the clear whiskey produced there. Though my family had been deeply involved back in Pete Thompson’s day, there was still so much I needed to learn.

My grandfather could look through patches of weeds and even into seventy- five-year-old forests and see things that used to exist in them—houses and farms owned by people he knew when he was growing up. A network of stores, gristmills, and a post office tied people together in Endicott then and continued to exist in his memory. Three main hollows named for the creeks that formed them composed the community: Long Branch, Runnett Bag Creek, and Shooting Creek, made famous by Charlie Poole’s song by the same name. “Going up Shooting Creek, going on a run; going up Shooting Creek, have a lot of fun.” A subsequent verse turned less friendly: “Going up Shooting Creek, gonna take my razor and my Gatling gun.” The place that inspired North Carolinian Charlie Poole, Grandpa could still see it in his mind’s eye.

Today the shady state road that winds along Shooting Creek is part of the increasingly popular Crooked Road Music Trail, a driving tour celebrating mountain music from the area; but during my grandfather’s childhood more than forty families lived on farms there, along with equal numbers up the other creeks—on land that today seems to be pristine forest and on terrain seemingly so steep and forbidding it could never be cleared and farmed. But it was, and the people who farmed there survived. Driving through those places brought Grandpa a flood of stories of people and their history that I loved to listen to. I drove with him as much as I could, and slowly the stories began to connect.

From Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World. Copyright 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. This excerpt may not be published, reproduced, reposted online or distributed by any means without the written permission of the copyright holder.