Sit A Spell Stories, The Still

slide1My daddy use to say–If the lead burns red you are dead. Proofing moonshine was done in one of two ways. You could light a match under a spoon of it and if the flame turned blue it was a good proof. A good proof means it had a lot of alcohol in it. If the flame turned red, it had toxins and you’d be blind or dead. Lead burns red.

 Another way was to shake it in the bottle. If it made big bubbles that popped quickly, then it was good. Neither of these methods is reliable cause you can’t detect certain additives that men used back then to boost the proof of their batch. The toxins added like lye and methanol would be deadly but it would make it bubble correctly. 

Many people went blind due to the use of car radiators being used as the condensation coils. The radiator parts or welded points had lead in them.  White Lightening or Moonshine is made from yeast, sugars, corn mash, water, and sometimes  flavorings.  You make moonshine in a Still. You can read about making ‘Shine here. It’s basically all the ingredients above boiling and fermenting away making vapors wich cool in the coils and drip in to the jug waiting at the end. 

I never understood as a child how come we had so much corn and sugar around the house. I thought everybody needed that much. I assumed every house in America needed 2 or 300 lbs of sugar and just as much cornmeal. He’d buy it several times a month in big old huge quantities. My daddy made 190 proof Moonshine. 200 is pure alcohol. My daddy had the most sought after Moonshine in several counties. No one ever went blind or got sick drinking my dad’s ‘Shine. They got divorced and lost their jobs but they never did die. 

The Still looks like a barrel with a cone at the top. Coming off that cone is a long piece of copper tubing in a spiral shape. My daddy use to fill that copper tubing full of sand and wrap it around a fence post in a loose type fashion. The sand inside the copper tubing assured the tubing from getting a kink. Once you got the right spiral shape, you washed the sand out and attached it to the barrel and the jug. 

If you couldn’t afford the copper tubing for the distilling part, then you used a car radiator. My daddy never would use a car radiator cause he said they had lead in the soldered joints. The lead contaminated the ‘Shine and was what made folks sick. 

The mash mix of corn meal, sugar, and yeast started boiling and fermenting. Fermenting means the little yeast critters are eating the sugar and corn and producing a gas as their by product. That gas is your vaporized alcohol and rises to the top of the Still.  The vapors will cool in the spiraled coils and become a liquid. Daddy would let the fist liquid drip on out without catching it cause it had cleansed the coil. Soon he’d determine it was time to start collecting it in a jug. 

I bragged to all my friends that we had a few Stills in our backyard. I was proud of it. My daddy was the son of a mechanic who was the son of an engineer. Our family knew engines and how to construct a good Still. Those are fine ingredients when running “Shine. Those government workers who weren’t buying from you were arresting you. A good fast car came in handy when out running the law. My dad had one of the first 1957 Chevy’s with a 454 and a 4 barrel carburetor. I had three brothers who ran the Shine with him. 

This is how NASCAR got started. Those boys ran ‘Shine at night and made the best race car drivers on the face of the earth—well that’s what daddy said. He and a few well known racing men of today sat around that Still with all the boys and talked racing. I hid in the ring of knowledge. All my stories were learned in the ring of knowledge. It’s that boundary where you can disappear from sight but still hear the conversation. It was very educational.

 He use to take me and my brothers to Bowman Grey race track in Winston Salem, NC and we’d come home with bits of rubber and junk stuck to our scalp. It was fun, loud, and dirty to go to a race back in the 1950s and early 60s. We would always have enough ‘Lightening to please a crowd. They went to Rockingham, Charlotte, Daytona, Darlington, and on and on. I only went when they were home. It was good father and daughter time. 

Daddy drove drunk all the time. Everybody loved my daddy. You’ll find me writing about the good and bad side of my dad. This was actually one of my fond memories. I rather liked all the excitement. That old Still was in our backyard for more than 30 years. The smoke trailed up and danced off the moonlight thus gettting its name—Moonshine. If you ‘Shined during the day the law would see your trail of smoke and find you. Daddy didn’t care sometimes. If he had a big order, he’d ‘Shine all day long. 

Some of you might think I’m from the mountains. I’m not. I’m from the outskirts of a furniture making town. My daddy owned a furniture factory and was a respectable business man. He gave a great deal of money to the Shriners Children Hospital. He gave money and paid the way for many a family to make ends meet. 

Our Still was famous. It was famous with the fire department too. It caught the woods on fire and blew up a couple of times. The vapors would build up too much pressure and blow the top off. That would upset the fire and coals would rain on the dry parched Pines. The firemen loved to come see daddy cause all his profits weren’t burned up in the fire. He always had reserves. The firemen and daddy would talk all night. I’d listen in the ring of knowledge. 

He died in his sleep in 1980. My momma was in the hospital dying of diabetes. I was married about 2 years and living in North Dakota. I’d just had my first child when the call came. I was for sure it was my momma and shocked to find it was my dad. He willed that a autopsy not be performed. We don’t know it— but suspect that he died of lung cancer. My dad was a non-stop smoker. He was good hearted and loved me. I loved him too but there is lots more to this story and some of it not so pretty. But today—we made Moonshine.

*******A hello from the gang at The Shed Blog. You inspired me to go ahead and write this article. They talk about home brew a lot!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Jen says:

    I enjoyed reading about your dad and the moonshine. Pretty funny that you thought those gobs of sugar and cornmeal were normal 🙂 Do people still make it?
    Oh yes, they do still have Sills. If you are going to make a lot, you have to get a permit. Didn’t everyone buy 300lbs of sugar a week?


  2. Catherine says:

    What an interesting story! I’d always wondered how it came to be called Moonshine, now I know. 🙂
    And now you know the —the rest of the story. It was good to live it and good to be done with it. Those were rough times.


  3. joey says:

    Thanks for weaving another rich story, Anna. My grandfather, who died before I was born and owned a hotel/bar, was a ‘bootlegger’ during Prohibition in the 1920s and spent 6 months in Fort Leavenworth ~ his cousin, another bootlegger competing for business, turned him in 🙂


  4. Sunita says:

    What a lovely, touching story. It left me with a smile and a long sigh at the end . Thank you for sharing it!


  5. Phillip (UK) says:

    Lovely story Anna you must have loved them so much. Never had Moonshine but I remember having Irish Potcheen once smuggled in as Holy Water (lol) and that was raw!
    I can still smell that Moonshine. The smell is so strong it has a flavor. I have had this story on my brain for a week now. Every now and then I’d piece together a part or two. I tasted it many time when I had a bad cold. It would knock the congestion out in a couple of hours. But it tasted awful. I can’t describe it. Like paint thinner or something. My dad would mix it with bourbon I think. We always said that his veins ran 180 proof. It’s a wonder he didn’t explode with all that combustible liquid.

    Holy Water? How did that happen? I knew a Baptist preacher to tell of being really thirsty one time while preaching at some church. He downed the Holy Water and soon found out it was ‘Shine. He told us it nearly choked him to death.


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