Legends, Likker and Lore
A Slice of Moonshine History
It is hard to know how many men and women were able to pay their taxes, mortgages, store bills, even contribute a little to their church, and hold onto their land and their pride by makin’ a little likker.”
– Daniel S. Pierce, Corn from a Jar
Kickapoo, mountain dew, hooch, red eye, ‘splo, white lightning, wild cat-call it what you may -to many, this was liquid gold in a mason jar. Making ends meet to feed the family, pay the rent, even build new business. It helped develop the economy of the sleepy, cash-poor mountain towns of the Smoky Mountains, and it did it well. But not without a price. Many producers sacrificed their time with family, fell into a cat-and-mouse chase with revenuers, and even succumbed to illegal and immoral activities to avoid jail time.
For this reason, these precious mountains are teeming with moonshine legend, myth and lore. Moonshine has become an icon for mountain life. But we can’t take all the credit for the triple “X” on that corn in a jar. Before our great, great, grandaddies were sealing the lids on that 100 proof, vegetables were being turned to booze as far back as the 6th century in Ireland, England and Scotland. We just romanticized it -sensationalized it like we do everything else. Now, there’s legal producers distilling moonshine to the masses. For one reason or another, whether it’s the nostalgia, the tradition, or just plain old getting “torn up”, we all want a piece of that ol’ hillbilly pop.
Exploring the Moonshine Trail the Way it Really was
This route will take you from the eastern entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, NC, through the Swiss-inspired mountain city of Gatlinburg, TN and into Pigeon Forge. This is a region I know well and have explored for ten years. I have seen it in every season, and have hiked, camped and driven through these mountains countless times. This is an absolutely breathtaking journey with a variety of things to enjoy.
Moonshine Location #1: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Here you can go inside and buy a packet for $5 that will give you all the guides and maps you need for the National Park. You will find a great heritage park which will give you insight to the lifestyle of some of the original Smoky Mountain moonshine producers. It is important to understand their way of life to fully appreciate the circumstance and demands that made that jar of corn so legendary today.
Moonshine Location #2: The Mingus Mill
Up the road from the Visitor Center, you will see the sign for the historic Mingus Mill circa 1886. This was the largest mill in the Smokies and is a great place to understand how corn was ground. Men would ride to the mill by horse and have their corn ground on the spot, making it easy for them to turn their corn crops into ground corn for sale to moonshine producers (oral record of park ranger). The mill is set in a quiet shaded lot in the woods. You can follow the wooden flume even deeper into the woods for a quiet retreat.
Moonshine Location #3: Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The desolate, deserted mountain village of Cades Cove is steeped in history and legends. Oral tales of moonshine legends transcended to books, songs, and even an entire organization of descendants that have dedicated their time to preserving its heritage the, Cades Cove Preservation Association. With over 80 historic buildings, Cades Cove has become a popular stop for nature and history enthusiasts. A 10-15 minute drive past the Sugarlands Visitor Center will take you to this portal of time in the Smokies where, you can get an idea of the way things were for producers of moonshine.
Corn in those days were a big deal. It was farmed to feed the people, the livestock and yes, to make that sweet, sweet hillbilly pop. The place to store corn was in the corn crib where it could dry well enough to be ground.
Henry Whitehead Place
This humble home is tied to a moonshine legend that has been handed down through generations since. It was the home of Matilda Shields Gregory and her son Josiah -built for them after her husband skipped town. Legend has it that, Josiah (nick named Joe Banty) later became the local moonshine producer. He kept his stills there near Chestnut Flats at the base of Gregory Bald -but soon met his demise when was later arrested by the local county Sheriff.
Thinking that they were tipped off by the local mailman John Oliver, he set out to retaliate by having his and his father’s barns burned. Turns out it wasn’t them who tipped off the man at all, but a local surveyor who saw the stills and filed a complaint.
John Oliver Place
John Oliver was a Primitive Baptist madly opposed to moonshining. He was the local mail carrier and was known for being a snitch and having part in the arrests of outlaws.
Elijah Oliver Place
Primitive Baptist Church
In the graveyard of this church you will find the Oliver family buried.
Moonshine Location #4: Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery, Gatlinburg, TN
The Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery in Gatlinburg, TN has become a staple of attraction in this Swiss-inspired mountain city. Enveloped in the peaks of the Smoky Mountains, this is where modern-day branding meets nostalgia. I have to say, I am not much of an enthusiast for “touristy” things, but I sure do love sneaking on down and sampling that White Lightning.
Proprietors Joe and Jessie Baker have really brought the “feel” of moonshine to the tourists, and they are serving it up one little shot at a time with flavors like “Apple Pie” and their all new “Charred”. With a live blue-grass band outside and a jar of kickapoo in your hand, you’re bound to get that warm fuzzy feeling, or maybe that was the cherries.
Moonshine Location #5: The Old Mill, Pigeon Forge, TN
The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, TN is about the only historic thing you will find in this area of the Smokies. This fully functional mill in operation since 1830 serves a few great purposes to your moonshine adventure. The Mill itself is pretty fascinating, but this is a fully working example of how corn is ground before it is used for moonshine.
You can take a tour, see how it all goes down, and get covered in corn dust like we did. The general store will give you that down home mountain feeling. Especially when you pick up a bag of corn meal milled right next door.
The Old Mill also has several restaurant options. I went to the Pottery House Cafe and Grille. Amazing. Just WOW. I am not wowed too often by food in tourist destinations, but this place really nailed the mountain meal with a big fire going and all. Overall this is a great place to end your moonshine adventure, and heck, why not do it all over again!
The research for this story was made fully possible by
Wilderness Wildlife Week is a free convention held during Winterfest every year. Here I was given the opportunity to interview Smoky Mountain and Appalachian Mountain experts on heritage, culture, and folklore, hear original mountain music played by local artists and learn all about the region. This is a fun, family experience, and I recommend if you are near the area you pay it a visit.
Special thanks goes to
Cades Cove Preservation Association – Oral account at Wilderness Wildlife Week
Doug Elliott, singer, songwriter, speaker, storyteller – Interview at Wilderness Wildlife Week
Cades Cove Tour by Carson Brewer – Great Smoky Mountains Association in Cooperation with the National Park Service 1999
Travel Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Guide and Maps
Daniel S. Pierce- Corn from a Jar – Great Smoky Mountain Association 2013