Monday, December 9, 2013

Investigating the Social and Economic Impacts of Illicit Whiskey Production in Western North Carolina

The importance of alcohol in American culture cannot be disputed. Just five years into his presidency, George Washington sent troops to suppress an insurrection by farmers in Western Pennsylvania who opposed a new tax on grain alcohol. The event is referred to as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and was the first major battle after the American Revolution. Prior to a true income tax established in 1916, the majority of Federal revenue was from taxes on alcohol. This new source of revenue made possible the passage of the 18th Amendment, known as the Prohibition. On October 28, 1919 the United States government implemented a national ban on the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol (Curtis 2007). This was the first and only time in its history that the United States government used a constitutional amendment to limit the rights of its people, essentially turning normal law abiding citizens into criminals. Interestingly, 13 years later the amendment was repealed by ratification of the 21st Amendment, the only instance that a constitutional amendment has been repealed in the United States (Curtis 2007). Today, Americans spend $160 billion annually on beer, wine and liquor (Huffington Post, 2012).

Prior to and after the Prohibition, quantifying the amount of alcohol produced and sold in the United States is fairly simple and for the most part accurate. This is due mainly to tax records. But from January 16, 1920 until December 5, 1933 all production of alcohol was illegal, therefore untaxed, unregulated, and difficult to quantify. Understanding the quantity of illegal alcohol produced during the prohibition would be useful in regards to impacts on local economies, organized crime, volume of consumption, success rates of revenue agents seizing stills (Figures 1-3), as well as an appreciation and protection of our cultural heritage.

Figure 1: A still pot destroyed by blows from an axe, a common
method used by revenue officers (photo taken by a hiker in Virginia).

Figure 2: A still pot destroyed by explosives, a method generally reserved
for larger production sites (photo taken by a hiker in Virginia).

Figure 3: Another still pot destroyed by explosives
(photo taken by a hiker in Virginia).

Records that may give some insight into quantifying whiskey production in a particular area would be sugar sales (sugar being a key ingredient). But locations where sugar sales were spiking would have been a red flag for the revenue agents and therefore would have most likely been purchased a safe distance from the production site in an effort to fool the government. Similar ruses are carried out today with the purchase of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine production. Arrest records could also be analyzed during the time period. But these can be skewed by many factors including targeted areas, informants, organized crime, etc., and therefore are not reliable for quantifying production.

The best way to quantify whiskey production is to survey a particular area and calculate the number of production sites (i.e. stills). As with most production sites, signature artifacts are left behind, such as still pots (Figure 2-3), still furnaces (Figure 4), or hastily made structures (Figure 5). Larger productions would have also required land modification, such as leveling (see Figure 5). Illegal whiskey production sites will invariable be in remote and hard to reach locations (generally in rough mountainous terrain) and in close proximity (~100 meters) to flowing water (needed to cool the coil or worm). Estimating the quantity of whiskey produced at a particular site could be based on the size of the still furnace, the still pot, or possibly the remnants of wooden barrels.

Figure 4: A small still furnace in the forests of
North Carolina (photo taken by a hiker).

Figure 5: A large production site seized by revenue officers
in Gordon County, Georgia in 1922 (photographer unknown).

A great place to investigate this proposed project is a large National Forest for its wilderness, ease of access and permission. One of the oldest National Forests in the United States is Pisgah National Forest, located in western North Carolina (Figure 6). Pisgah was founded in 1916 (three years before prohibition) and covers over 500,000 acres of mountainous terrain with an abundance of perennial streams. About one-tenth of Pisgah is old-growth forest (Schaffer 2009), meaning this area was heavily forested during prohibition. In addition, western North Carolina is well known for its high quality moonshine production; both past and present (see the documentary film The Last One).

The project described above would be ideal for a multi-year field school.  But the first step toward bringing a field school on this subject to fruition is to travel to Pisgah and determine the project’s feasibility. Thanks to exploratory funds provided by The Institute for Field Research, the initial trip on December 21, 2013 will provide me and an assistant the opportunity to investigate the feasibility of locating whiskey production sites within the Pisgah National Forest. The immediate focus will be in western McDowell County and southern Haywood County because of their high concentration of old-growth forest (Schaffer 2009).  We also have plans to visit previously recorded still sites as well as meet with several local informants that are well versed in moonshine production.

Figure 6: Map of Pisgah National Forest


Curtis, Wayne
2007    Bootleg Paradise.  American Heritage, 58(2).

Huffington Post

Schaffer, Jonathan
2009    Prioritization of Old-Growth Forest Conservation on the Pisgah National Forest. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. Duke University, Durham, NC.

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