Let's face it, moonshine can be funny. Even if you've seen it a hundred times, Otis Campbell's voluntary incarceration at the Mayberry Jail is a guaranteed belly laugh. Every time Andy or Barney helps Otis into his cell and reads him a bedtime story, it cements North Carolina's colorful legacy as a big moonshine state. Moonshine is how NASCAR was born; souped up cars carrying gallons of whiskey and outfoxing the revenuers – then racing each other on homemade dirt tracks. Of course, moonshine stories accounted for many great films and countless country songs, mostly by Willie Nelson and George Jones.
I thought it was like most legends, over-exaggerated hype – that is until I began covering news stories in rural North Carolina counties. I was there when still busters discovered a hidden basement under a Johnston County barn full of corn mash barrels. When they began bashing the still, the whiskey flowed like a river and the stench nearly blew me over.
I think it was in 1986 that Bill Leslie and I made a trip to Mars Hill College north of Asheville where Blue Ridge historian Harley Jolley set us up with some old "reformed" moonshine legends. Willard Watson looked like the stereotype of an old mountain moonshiner – with overalls, a Jed Clampett hat and Jed Clampett whiskers. For our benefit, he set up a still in the woods near his home. For my camera, he assembled the copper boiler and coils and showed us how he made a paste to seal up the seams. "I'm just doing this so people can see how it was done," said Watson, who's demo brew was just water – no kick at all to it.
Later, we visited the famous Doc King, who had a shirt with the words "DOC KING, FAMOUS MOONSHINER" printed on the back. He looked to be about 75 years old, but taking into account the effects of his moonshine past, he was probably only 45. As I aimed my camera, I noticed that one eye was trained on Bill while the other eye wandered off somewhere in space. I wondered if that was a side effect of consuming his own product. Bill asked, "How much moonshine do you think you've made in your life?" Doc paused for a moment and leaned way forward to make his point, "If you had it pond up, I'd be honest in thinking it would float the Queen Mary."
Harley Jolly summed up the mentality of these men and why they were willing to risk so much for their illegal trade. "The good Lord made the creek. The good Lord made the river. The good Lord made the corn. The good Lord made the sugar, and the good Lord gave me freedom. By God, I'll make it when I please." Doc said it was matter of economics, "You can get shoes now without making whiskey. Back in my day, that's the only way we had of gettin' a dollar."
These were classic characters, and those stories that Bill and I did were among the favorites of my career. It was 16 years later, when I was a one-man-band (shot-wrote-voiced and edited my own stories), when I jumped at the chance to visit another great moonshine character. It ended up being, as the title suggests, the greatest moonshine story never told – till now.
Every morning when I came to work, I scanned the small town newspapers online looking for a human interest story to produce for TV. One morning, our station vice president Jim Hefner found one that he thought had my name written on it. Now, I can't tell you what town or county, and "Jed" wasn't his real name – just one that I'll use to protect him, though he's not among the innocent.
We read that someone informed the county sheriff that Jed was operating a still in his backyard shed. Of course, they confiscated the still and destroyed the hooch. Then Jed and the sheriff shook hands on a deal, no jail time, if Jed could put the still back together as a display at the county's new museum. On top of that, the sheriff demanded a promise. Jed told me later, "I shook hands with Sheriff ______, and I told him I'd quit. I didn't tell him that the first time he caught me." I don't know if he turned out to be a man of his word on this matter.
In my search for Jed, I couldn't find a phone number, but his name led to an address, so I drove 30 miles with the hope that I'd come back with a story that night. If I was lucky, I figured the man would agree to a friendly interview about his life making the stuff and dodging the law. Knowing that the sheriff had destroyed all his illegal brew, I never dreamed I'd find what I did when I went up to rap on his screen door.
I heard a slurred, "Come on in." There were two men sitting in the living room, one was sober. The other was a large man wearing a stained white T-shirt, barefoot, bald head and with a white beard. He was holding a half gallon jar of homemade strawberry brandy, 99 percent pure alcohol. It was one that he apparently had hidden away before the surprise bust. Strangely, out of place in front of them was an empty baby's play pen. I introduced myself to the men. At the same time I was trying to figure out how I should handle this situation.
Two thoughts – one, maybe I should turn around and go back home and find a sober story to tell that day. Then, I thought, this could make the story even better! So, I listened to the devil on my shoulder and the better angel of my nature went "poof." With a little coaxing by his buddy, Jed agreed to an interview and we set up on the front porch. Jed blamed his uncle for introducing him to the fine art, a man he called a crook. "He dead now. (Expletive) ought have been dead 50 years ago." Jed was proud of how well his customers regarded his product. He even took a few more swigs from his jar as we spoke. I asked how much money he charged for his moonshine. He looked at me like I was a big city idiot. Then he leaned over with his head bowed down, shook his head and raised it up, attempting to focus on my face, "Bossman. I'm going to tell you, if I could get paid for what I gave away, I'd be a multiplying millionaire."
Then, Jed reached out his hand as if to make peace with me with a hand shake. I grasped his hand and he said, "I got your (expletive) now. You can't get away. I gotcha." "Okay," I said smiling and keeping eye contact. I waited to see what would happen next until he just let loose and shook his head. Later, he wanted to lead me down to his shed where the still had been, but he needed my shoulder to lean on. He wrapped an arm around me and with his head bobbing around, just like Otis did as he leaned on Barney's shoulder into the Mayberry jail cell. Jed said, "What would keep me from killing you right now?" I said hopefully, "You wouldn't do that. I trust you."
The interview didn't get much better than that until I asked him if he thought he'd ever set up another operation. Jed said he'd be true to his word given to the sheriff. Then, with a more serious look on his face, he said, "I quit. I quit. You know why? You want me to tell you why?" A moment or two passed as tears welled up in his eyes. "I got a little grandson. I got little old grandson." He paused and hung his head, sobbing. That explained the empty play pen inside. "I don't want him to know what bootlegging is, because I love him. I don't want him brought up in stuff like that."
I thanked Jed for his honesty and time, packed up and left with what I thought was gold on tape. By the time I got back to the station, John Harris, the news director, said they'd got a call from Jed's wife threatening to sue the station if we ran the story. She said he was in no condition to be responsible for his decisions, and she was right. We may have won the lawsuit if we felt it was news that needed to be told. Lawsuits aside, I really didn't want to cause any more pain for that family than Jed had already been responsible for. I didn't want his grandson to grow up with other people talking about how his grandpa was a funny drunk on TV, just like Otis.
I can't watch those Otis episodes the same way anymore without thinking of Jed. The real story of moonshiners isn't the music or the movies it inspired or the hard driving sport it fostered. Behind the "legend" is generational alcohol addiction, prison, broken marriages, fatherless children , homelessness and ruined, wasted lives.
"Forget about moonshining, because God knows there's nothin' in it but headaches, heartaches and you name it... that's it." – Doc King, Famous Moonshiner