Legends, Likker and Lore – A Travel Guide to Moonshine in the Smoky Mountains

There are some adventures that must be had in this great American land, and a Moonshine adventure is one of them. That’s why I put together this travel guide to moonshine in the Smoky Mountains. There’s something incredibly compelling about moonshine history. It’s a part of the American cultural fabric with legends as interesting as its makers.

 

What’s to Know About Moonshine in the Smoky Mountains?

 

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.

 

This is a moonshine making setup. The system is pretty much still the same. This is on display at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This is a moonshine making setup. The system is pretty much still the same. This is on display at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

 

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 are 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.

 

Looking for some awesome hiking trails in the US?

 

Exploring the Moonshine Trail the Way it Really was – A Travel Guide to Moonshine in the Smoky Mountains 

 

This is one of the many brooks and streams that run through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This is one of the many brooks and streams that run through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

 

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

At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center there is a great exhibit on mountain life and its industry, including moonshining.

At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, there is a great exhibit on mountain life and its industry, including moonshining.

 

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 into 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.

 

From the exhibit inside the Visitor Center.

From the exhibit inside the Visitor Center.

 

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

Following the wooden flume to anywhere it leads. It’s the adventurer in me that does these things…

 

Looking back at the Mingus Mill while creeping into the woods. I always find myself creeping into the woods...

Looking back at the Mingus Mill while creeping into the woods. I always find myself creeping into the woods…

 

Of course, monkey see, monkey do. Here the boys are ditching me as usual.

Of course, monkey see, monkey do. Here the boys are ditching me as usual.

 

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 AssociationWith 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 Cribs

 

Corn in those days was 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

 

The Henry Whitehead Cabin c. 1895 on Forge Creek Rd near Chestnut Flats, built for Aunt Tildy (Matilda), Great Smoky National Park in Cades Cove. Photo by Brian Stansberry

The Henry Whitehead Cabin c. 1895 on Forge Creek Rd near Chestnut Flats, built for Aunt Tildy (Matilda), Great Smoky National Park in Cades Cove. Photo by Brian Stansberry

 

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 (nicknamed 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 Cabin c. 1822 in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Cades Cove Loop Road. Photo by Brian Stansberry

John Oliver Cabin c. 1822 in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Cades Cove Loop Road. Photo by Brian Stansberry

 

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 a part in the arrests of outlaws.

 

Elijah Oliver Place

 

Elijah-oliver-cabin-

The Elijah Oliver Cabin in Cades Cove, Elijah was the son of John Oliver, associated with the arrest of Josiah Gregory. Photo by Brian Stansberry

 

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

 

This is how the moonshine is stored. Just like they always were. Ole Smoky distills and stores moonshine just like their grandaddies did, just on a bigger scale.

This is how the moonshine is stored. Just like they always were. Ole Smoky distils and stores moonshine just like their grandaddies did, just on a bigger scale.

 

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.

 

Getting my sampling on... I had a few samples, a few times over. I always do lol. Then I get a jar of the Apple Pie to take home. It's about time for a refill on that ha!

Getting my sampling on… I had a few samples, a few times over. I always do lol. Then I get a jar of the Apple Pie to take home. It’s about time for a refill on that ha!

 

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 bluegrass 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.

 

This is the liquid gold. The only one getting the freshest sample in town are the ones on the payroll and well, me of course lol. YAY!

This is the liquid gold. The only one getting the freshest sample in town are the ones on the payroll and well, me of course lol. YAY!

 

The Little Fairytale Traveler's science lesson for the day was spent watching ground corn ferment and learning the distilling process. Not bad for a five year old.

The Little Fairytale Traveler’s science lesson for the day was spent watching ground corn ferment and learning the distilling process. Not bad for a five-year-old.

 

Ole Smoky's newest baby, Charred. After the shine is distilled it sits in whiskey barrels so the flavor sets in from the wood. I haven't tried it yet. When I was there they were all barreled up ready to ship to Knoxville where they bottle it and ship it back to sell. Who know's maybe I'll get a surprise in the mail *wink wink

Ole Smoky’s newest baby, Charred. After the shine is distilled it sits in whiskey barrels so the flavor sets in from the wood. I haven’t tried it yet. When I was there they were all barreled up ready to ship to Knoxville where they bottle it and ship it back to sell. Who know’s maybe I’ll get a surprise in the mail *wink wink

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.

 

The front of the Old Mill. This was taken just before it was covered in snow! Which may I add is super pretty.

The front of the Old Mill. This was taken just before it was covered in snow! Which may I add is super pretty.

 

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 cornmeal milled right next door.

 

The back of the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, TN. This looks like it is from a 100 years ago, but it was taken in January! That's how these parts are...

The back of the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, TN. This looks like it is from 100 years ago, but it was taken in January! That’s how these parts are…

 

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!

 

Get your free samples of legal moonshine at the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery in Gatlinburg, TN

Get your free samples of legal moonshine at the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery in Gatlinburg, TN

 

The research for this story was made fully possible by

wilderness-wildlife-week-1

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

gatlinburg

Postcard_of_Ole_Smoky_Ten-20000000005457464-500x375-300x225

Click here to plan your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

For accommodation along this adventure, why not check out the Old Mill Lodging 

References:

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


About Christa Thompson

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Christa Thompson is the Founder and Senior Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. Christa has been traveling the world since 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

4 Comments on this post

  1. What an exhaustive run down on these attractions. Some beautiful scenes in the photo series, too. Would love to visit the area, now. Glad to have found your most interesting blog through mutual contacts on Facebook. All the best…

    Andrew / Reply
  2. We have to check some of these out when we are back in the USA. We are planning a road trip and will def add this to the list!

    Hannah @ GettingStamped / Reply

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