- Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle Over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia, and: Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World
Appalachian myth and legend have long made the terms “moonshine” and “mountaineers” largely inseparable in the minds of many Americans. Fascinating, though typically overblown, stories and images of backward and violent jug- and gun-toting hillbillies have captivated Americans and [End Page 130] helped define mountain people in the popular consciousness since the nineteenth century. Yet, despite the sensationalism and exaggeration of the topic in popular accounts and stereotype, historians Bruce Stewart and Charles D. Thompson Jr. reveal just how serious and integral moonshining was to small farmers in the economically deprived mountains.
Stewart’s Moonshiners and Prohibitionists sets out to explain why attitudes toward alcohol changed so greatly in the region between the antebellum period and the early twentieth century. Examining the rural mountain counties of western North Carolina, Stewart charts how sentiments toward alcohol shifted from strong beliefs that producing alcohol was an inherent right of free persons to opposite convictions that produced key votes enabling North Carolina to pass statewide prohibition in 1908. While most scholars have attributed this change of opinion to the rise of evangelical Christianity, Stewart’s exhaustively researched and well-written account contends that industrialization played the biggest role, arguing that the prohibition movement would not have gained such widespread support in the mountains “without the emergence of new economic forces” in the late nineteenth century (6). As the Western North Carolina Railroad and accompanying industrialization swept through the mountains in the 1880s and tied more sections of the countryside more closely to the national market economy, converting corn into liquor became less necessary for many yeoman farmers’ economic well-being.
Townspeople in Appalachia, “embracing middle-class virtues of self-control, frugality, and sobriety,” organized temperance societies and pressed for anti-liquor legislation as early as the antebellum period (5). But such opinions were vastly outnumbered in the rural mountains where residents valued liquor as an important economic and cultural resource. Since rugged terrain and poor roads made transporting grain a difficult and expensive endeavor, distilling corn into liquid made good economic sense. Stewart shows, for example, that before the Civil War a mule could haul only about four bushels of corn as grain but transport the equivalent of twenty-four bushels when made into liquid. Furthermore, Stewart finds that converting corn into liquor for the market could earn farmers more than double what they would ordinarily make by selling it as grain (21). While a number of townspeople advocated for alcohol regulations, the rural majority, including their churches, overwhelmingly rejected such attempts to intrude into their livelihoods.
Temperance advocates in Appalachian towns despised their rural neighbors’ attachment to alcohol, labeling them as backward and rude. [End Page 131] Stewart, in fact, discovers in the antebellum years important early seeds of the mountain stereotypes that would come to define the Appalachian image in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though many historians have emphasized the role that outsiders played in developing popular Appalachian stereotypes, Stewart reveals that early anti-liquor crusaders in the region’s towns contributed their share as well.
Attitudes about alcohol shifted for a brief time during the Civil War as residents supported, and even demanded, regulating alcohol production to ensure that enough corn would be available for subsistence during the crisis. But, by the Reconstruction era, strong resentment toward alcohol regulation could once again be seen in how rural mountaineers came to despise Republican regimes, protesting that “They Tax Us and Give Us Negro Civil Rights,” as Stewart titles his fourth chapter. Antipathy toward the Internal Revenue Service and federal liquor taxation, Stewart argues, was equally important, if not more so, than anger toward civil rights policies for African Americans in swinging western North...