Virginia Moonshine

Franklin County Moonshine Stills

28 February 2012

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Note: I found these photos on my hard drive from a walk I did last August. It’s not really this green in February. 😉

Franklin County, Virginia has been called the Moonshine Capital of the World. I’ve commented before on how easy it is to find old moonshine stills rusting away in the woods. There has been so much moonshine made in Franklin County that you can literally walk up any creek and find an old moonshine still.

I decided to put that bold statement to the test one day: I drove around Franklin County, randomly picked a creek, parked on the side of the road, and just walked up the creek.

And I found three moonshine stills.

The area I picked was near the Smith River in a remote section of the county (much of Franklin County is remote.) The Smith River divides Franklin County on the south from Henry County and I’ve found many stills on the Franklin County side of the river, but few on the Henry County side. I drove until I found an area where there weren’t too many houses around and just parked on the side of the road next to a creek.

The first moonshine still I found was at the confluence of two creeks. The still was typical of most that I find: a twisted, rusting piece of metal. It’s interesting to note that I’ve found many stills where two small creeks meet. I think it’s because the terrain that’s created by two creeks meeting is typically flat – a nice area to place a moonshining operation.

I also found what appeared to be a perfect still furnace. It was shaped with rock on three sides and even had rocks across the top. It looked very much like the still furnace diagram in the Foxfire Book. When I looked at it closer though, I noticed water trickling out of the bottom of it. It was probably a spring box which is pretty common in these parts.

I continued walking up the main creek and I found two more stills. One was located high on the banks of the creek. It looked like that’s where it had landed after being blown up by the law. The third still was further upstream, lying in the creek, and hidden by weeds.

Snowbird Mill – Historic Mill on Jordan Creek

29 June 2011

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On Sunday, a friend gave me some information about a historic mill on Jordan Creek in Henry County, Virginia. The mill is a long forgotten structure, swallowed up by the forest 50 years ago. After I found the mill, I also wanted to see if I could find old moonshine stills along the creek since I haven’t found any in Henry County yet.

Jordan Creek is a large tributary of the Smith River. It runs through the town of Fieldale before dumping into the Smith. Jordan Creek would be a great place to locate a moonshine still since it’s surrounded by large tracts of woods. It’s a relatively inaccessible creek, but located close to town which means the average person won’t stumble across your still – and its close enough to civilization to get materials back and forth.

The history of the area is interesting. The region was originally settled by George Waller, a Revolutionary War Colonel who operated a plantation there. Years later, after the Civil War ended, freed slaves (who took the names of their former masters) founded the community of Waller. In 1817, the Marshal Fields Company purchased 1800 acres on the old plantation site, built a textile plant, and created the town of Fieldale. Thus began the industrialization of Henry County (the furniture factories in the nearby town of Bassett would come next.)

Snowbird Mill was located near Waller on Jordan Creek, and operated at the turn of the last century. It actually operated up until 1958. The mill was then lost to time as the woods grew up around Jordan Creek. Though it’s not that far from Fieldale, the old mill is rather difficult to access, especially in the summer. I had to climb down a steep, overgrown bank to get to the creek – using poison ivy vines as hand holds. Then I had to walk up the creek itself (since it’s steep along that stretch), and then through a field of tick infested brush.

The history of Waller and Fieldale.

The mill is still sitting there on Jordan Creek and it’s in remarkably great shape for being 100+ years old. It looks just like the old pictures. You can climb up into the structure and the old mill stone is still in place.

After checking out the mill I headed upstream to look for old moonshine stills. To me, Jordan Creek would be an ideal place to set up a still. I walked quite a ways up the creek, but didn’t find any signs of old moonshine operations. Heading back I noticed a side creek running in, so I decided to walk up this tributary to see what I could find. This little creek looked like a great place too. The ravine was steep sided, but offered many flat level spots along the creek to set up a moonshining operation. I walked and walked but didn’t find anything. I have the odd habit of talking to myself when I’m alone in the woods. As I walked, I thought out loud to myself, “if this creek were in Franklin County, I would have found five stills by now” and as soon as that last word slipped off my tongue, I looked up and saw an old still.

The remains of the still are nothing special – typical of what you find in the area. Most of it is disintegrated and to the untrained eye it just looks like a rusting pile of trash in the woods. Part of it lay rusting in the creek. As far as old moonshine stills go, it’s not a significant find (unlike this one on Salt House Branch.)

It is significant to me, though because it’s the first moonshine still I’ve found in Henry County. I’ve looked for stills in Henry County in the past, but never found any. I know that they are here, just not as prolific as in neighboring Franklin and Patrick Counties. In Franklin County, you can walk up almost any creek and find an old still. I’m going to spend a little more time searching Henry County now that I’ve found a still.

The Moonshine Stills of Turkeycock Mountain Pt.3

23 June 2011

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Turkeycock Mountain lies on the eastern border of Franklin and Henry County, Virginia and the ridgeline of the mountain marks the county line. The mountain has a long history of moonshining. I’ve been hunting for stills two other times on the mountain and both times I’ve easily found the remains of old moonshine stills (Pt.1 and Pt.2.) My previous hunting was along Machine Creek and during this trip I wanted to check the area past where I had found the stills back in winter.

I parked, walked down the hill and almost immediately found the remains of an old groundhog still. Most of the moonshine in this area was produced in submarine stills. This is the first groundhog still that I’ve found in the area. Groundhog stills are circular, with a wooden top and bottom. They sit on the ground and the fire is built around them. You can see one being built and run in the Hamper McBee video. This particular still had been repaired at some point in its history by being patched and riveted on the sides. This still was probably cut down by the revenuers, and then repaired and put back into service.

After snapping a few photos of the still, I continued up Machine Creek. A lot had changed since my last visit in February. The woods in June are an impenetrable mass of mountain laurel and thorny vines. Walking in the creek in winter was easy, but in summer it’s a complete bushwhack. I walked way up the creek, but if there were any stills I wouldn’t have seen them. The woods were so overgrown that I couldn’t see anything at all. I snapped a photo of the “trail” that you can see in the gallery below.

I’m going to have to re-think my summertime still hunting technique. Walking up the creeks will work in the winter and spring, but doesn’t work in the summertime.

Jamison Mill Stills Pt. 2

20 May 2011

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Heres a few pics from a friend that was hiking around Jamison Mill Park on Philpott Lake in Franklin County, Virginia. The moonshine stills are located on a small tributary to Nicholson Creek just off the the “North Rim Trail” at Jamison Mill Park. This is very close to the other moonshine stills found at the park. From the photos, it appears that there are several moonshine stills, one of which is still in relatively decent shape (it has somewhat intact wood sides.)

In Search of the Dehart Distillery

5 May 2011

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Dehart DistilleryAt the turn of the last century there were many legal distilleries in Southwest Virginia. In Franklin County, Virginia alone there were 77 legal distilleries. Unfortunately, Prohibition put an end to Virginia’s legal whiskey industry. One of the operations forced out of business was the Dehart Distillery, producer of Mountain Rose Corn Whiskey. The flyer on the right was printed in 1916 by Dehart just before the start of prohibition in Virginia. It warns consumers to stock up on it’s whiskey before the coming prohibition.

The site of one of Dehart’s distilleries was located in Philpott, Virginia. I’m quite familiar with the area since my friends and I raft the Smith River below the Philpott Dam. I’ve also found old moonshine stills in the area. I got a tip that the old distillery was located in one of the hollows below the dam.

My goal was to find the remains of the old distillery and to find any old moonshine stills that would inevitably be located along the creek. I wasn’t exactly sure how accurate the information about the location of the distillery was. There are a few creeks that feed the Smith River below Philpott Dam, so I just picked one and started walking upstream.

Within a couple hundred yards, I came across the confluence of two creeks which created a flat level area – the perfect location to put a moonshine still. Of course that’s exactly what somebody did. There were mason jars everywhere, rusting metal buckets, and lots of debris from a moonshining operation. I found what appeared to be a boiler, but I couldn’t be 100% certain.

Continuing up the creek, I found the remains of an old building. The chimney was all that was left of the structure, the rest having rotted away long ago. This may have been the Dehart Distillery, which was in operation up until about 1917, but there weren’t any other clues to indicate what the structure was. I’m not 100% certain that this was in fact the old Dehart Distillery. It might have been just an old house. I’ll have to do a little more research to confirm it.

Sitting next to the remains of the old building was a literal toxic waste dump. Quite a few 55 gallon drums sat rusting away. The drums, which were labeled Eastman Chemical Company, were in various states of decay. Some of them had already leaked all of their contents into the ground (and presumably into the creek,) while others were still filled to the top with some greenish chemical goodness.

Continuing up the creek, I pushed my way through laurel thickets as the terrain got steeper. I finally came to the source of the creek, which – surprise – had an old moonshine still rusting in the creek. There wasn’t much left of the still, but it was obviously an old submarine still (because of all the nails.)

Salt House Branch Stills

5 March 2011

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After finding several stills earlier today on our hike with the Dan River Basin Association, we left Jamison Mill headed toward Salt House Branch. This park is one of many along the shores of Philpott Lake in Franklin County, Virginia. We were headed to Salt House Branch on a tip from one of the rangers at the park. She said that there was an even better still at that park in the woods.

We soon found the still after following her directions. Wow! This moonshine still was in even better condition than the one at Jamison Mill! This was a submarine still like most of the others I’ve seen in the area. One of the wooden sides was completely intact. There were buckets and barrel pieces scattered about and there was even an old mason jar lying protected under the still. This still had ax marks from the revenue agents making it inoperable.

The cinder blocks that composed the furnace looked very old. They had an irregular shape, narrower than the modern, standard concrete block. The texture of the block was very coarse, unlike the smooth concrete blocks of today. If anyone reading this can date concrete blocks by their appearance, please comment below. I’d love to know how old this still is.

The oddest thing about this still was its location. It was not located along a creek, but instead it was high in the woods above a creek, about 100 feet from water. The bootleggers must have pumped water up from the creek. Running water is needed to cool down the alcohol vapor and condense it into liquor. We searched for signs of pipes, but couldn’t locate any. It might also be possible that there is running water or a seep in the area during wetter times.

We cut through the woods to get back to the car, following a stream. We came across a second still that was mostly decayed. It looked like a typical submarine still.

On our way back to the car we cut over a ridge and as we were coming down the other side, my friend said he spotted another still at the bottom of the ridge along a creek. This third still was a submarine still. The odd feature of this still is that it appears to have been blown apart with dynamite. When the revenue agents found moonshine stills in the woods, they would destroy them, mostly with axes, but they would dynamite larger operations. This still looked mangled and blown apart. It’s possible that this still was dynamited.

Jamison Mill Stills

5 March 2011

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Today I went to Jamison Mill on Philpott Lake with the Dan River Basin Association. It was DRBA’s annual members meeting and we all met for a hike at Jamison Mill. This is a beautiful scenic area in Franklin County near the Blue Ridge – not quite in the mountains, but you feel as if you are in the middle of the Blue Ridge. The terrain is quite steep and rugged.

When we neared the end of the hike, the ranger told us “The next time you are out here, if you’re feeling adventurous, there’s moonshine still down in that hollow.” That was all it took for my friend and I to part ways with the group. We left the trail, started off through the woods and down into the hollow.

After a few minutes of walking we found the most well preserved still I’ve ever seen! Check out the photos. This was a classic submarine still and it has somehow remained mostly intact. I didn’t see any ax marks, so I think this still operated without the law finding it. The circular hole in the top was where the copper cap was attached. I later found out from a local historian that this particular still was in operation after the dam was built, so it’s post 1951.

The still was located at the junction of two streams, so we went back uphill following the other stream. We found two more stills, the second about 100 feet from the first, and the third about 100 feet from that one.

The second still looked more circular than a submarine still. The third still was probably a submarine still, but very little remained of it.

The Still at Philpott Dam

3 March 2011

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I spoke with a ranger at Philpott Dam the other day and received a great tip on an old moonshine still site near the base of the dam. I followed his directions, which led me along the main trail. I couldn’t locate the still, and I believe the directions might have been off, so I decided to just strike out on my own.

From the top of the dam I bushwhacked down through a hollow until I hit a small creek. Almost immediately I found an old moonshine still. The still I found was typical of most of the ones I’ve been finding. It looked like a submarine still and the remains had ax marks from the revenuers.

The interesting thing about this creek is that, as I followed it down to the base of the dam, it disappeared. The creek went dry, and presumably flowed under the dry creek bed, until it repapered further down the hollow. It did this several times before reaching the bottom and flowing into the Smith River.

From a moonshiner’s perspective, this is a great place to locate a still. All of the moonshine stills I’ve been finding were located right along a creek. If I were a revenue agent, trying to find a moonshine operation, I would simply walk up creeks and streams until I found a still. You need water to run a still, so there is much less chance of finding one in a dry area. A revenue agent might give up the hunt once the creek went dry. A sly still operator would have a better chance of hiding his still in a hollow like this one where the water disappeared and then reappeared further up the creek

The Moonshine Stills of Turkeycock Mountain Pt.2

27 February 2011

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Today was a beautiful, unseasonably warm February day in Southwestern Virginia. I decided to get out of the house and walk the woods to hunt for old moonshine stills. I drove back to Turkeycock Mountain in Franklin County to try to locate more old still sites. Instead of continuing down the creek where I had found the stills during my last visit, I decided to find another creek to see if it was as productive.

I found a different creek crossing the road, so I parked and started walking up stream.

Still #1
I literally walked 100 feet from the car and found a still. I thought to myself, “You have got to be kidding me. This is just too easy.” I suppose this is the reason Franklin County, Virginia is known as the moonshine capital of the world.

The furnace box wasn’t very distinct, but the boiler next to it certainly was. It was constructed exactly like the others that I had seen – a sheet metal barrel with wooden sides nailed in place. The site had a few other random scraps of metal and a pipe buried under the leaves.

This still was very close to the road. Like I said, it was only about 100 feet from the road and I could easily see my car from the still. Did this operation pre-date the road I was parked on? The operators couldn’t have been so bold as to build a still that close to the road.

Still #2
Continuing up the same creek, I found a second still about a hundred yards from the first. There were two boilers of the same construction as all of the rest I’ve seen. The difference between this site and the others is that the operators used concrete block to build the still furnace.

I’m amazed at how easy it is to find stills around here. It really makes me wonder how many old moonshine stills are on this mountain.

The Moonshine Stills of Turkeycock Mountain

17 January 2011

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A few days after locating the still in the previous post, I received another tip from my friend about a possible old still site on Turkeycock Mountain. I decided to go and check it out today, so I drove over to the mountain and parked on the side of the road. I walked into the woods, following a creek up into a hollow.

Still #1
Within minutes I saw an old still site on the banks of the creek. It was just a low pile of rocks, but it had that same “U” shape that I had seen at the first still site I had seen. It’s hard to tell in the photo I posted, but this was definitely an old still furnace. A tree grew out of the corner and you could almost see this site from the road, so I assume the site is very old.

Surprisingly, this didn’t match the description of the still site that my friend told me about. I decided to continue walking up the creek to see if I could find the still he had described to me…

Still #2
After walking about a thousand feet up the creek, I came upon the remains of another still. This time it was just the boiler that I found. I couldn’t find any rocks or remains of what might be a still furnace, but the old pile of metal had the telltale nail edge that I had seen before. However, this site still didn’t match the description my friend had given me, so I continued walking up the creek…

Still #3
I walked about one hundred feet up the creek and I found another still. There was quite a bit more to this moonshine still site. It looked like there were the remains of several sheet metal boilers, all constructed the same way – round or oval shaped with wood ends nailed in place. There was also a heavy gauge metal ring in the creek. What they used this for, I have no idea.

This site still didn’t match the description, so I continued walking up the creek…

Still #4
I came to a spot where the creek split, so I walked up the smaller branch. The creek got steeper and this little holler was much more secluded. To me, it looked like the perfect place to place a still. And of course, it was. After walking a few hundred feet up this branch I found the remains of an old still furnace. Again, it’s really hard to see it in the photo I posted, but it was very distinct looking.

I was now traveling in a different direction than where my friend had told me to look, but the creek looked good. I continued following the creek up stream. I wondered what the chances were that I would find a fifth moonshine still…

Still #5
Pretty good I guess. After walking up the creek for about 100 yards I found another still! The site was located near the head of the small creek where the water seeped out of the ground. There was just a small amount of water flowing in the creek, but it seemed enough to cool down a condenser. The site had a large still furnace and a large boiler lay in the creek. Rusted barrel hoops, a few pipes, and other bits of metal littered the banks of the creek. The site appeared to be largest of the operations so far and I tried to imagine the logistics of transporting the still, heavy wooden barrels, and hundreds of pounds of grain and sugar this far into the woods.

I never found the original still site that my friend had described to me, though I only walked about a half mile up the creek. It’s absolutely amazing to me that I could find five separate moonshine still locations along a small stretch of creek on some random mountain, but I guess this is Franklin County – the moonshine capital of the world.