The Moonshiner and the Church League

The best stuff comes in jars like these

The best stuff comes in jars like these

Between about 1930 and 1960, my Uncle Joe (not his real name, he has relatives who may read this and would scream to high heaven) was noted for producing the highest quality moonshine in the county where I grew up. There were other moonshiners and other stills, but Uncle Joe was, by general consensus, the man who made the very best “stuff” in the county. He ran a small produce stand that was literally only a few feet out of town, which meant the police department had no jurisdiction at the stand. There was this old green awning that stretched over the front so that he could sit out seasonal fruits and vegetables for his customers to see (and occasionally taste). Inside there were shelves for eggs, a cooler for milk and cream, and a counter with one of those old-fashioned cash registers that made you punch the keys and showed the money as 70 and 5 for 75 cents. He and Aunt May (again not her real name) lived in some rooms behind the stand and back behind their rooms was “the stash.” Originally the “stash” was directly behind the stand and they lived in the rooms behind the “stash” room. Aunt May pitched a fit about having to walk through the den of iniquity that was the “stash” room every day, so Uncle Joe moved them into the “stash” room and the “stash” went into what had been their bedroom. Customers would show up, check out the onions, buy a pound of  beans, and pick up a couple of Mason Jars full of Uncle Joe’s best. The County Sheriff was in on it too. The local Sheriff and his Chief Deputy were two of Uncle Joe’s best customers (they got a jar of each batch, but I’m not sure if money changed hands).

My grandfather had access to a plot of land about a mile or so off the main paved road. You went down this dirt track and turned off just before you reached a low-water crossing. There was a nice little creek with trees on each bank down in a swale about a quarter-mile off the dirt track and my grandfather helped Uncle Joe set up his still there (they never let me visit it). The owner of the property finally caught wind of the arrangement, but a jar of Uncle Joe’s newest batch each time a batch was ready solved that problem. Uncle Henry (again, not his real name) was the driver (gotta keep this in the family). He’d drive his old pickup down to the creek, load up the “stuff” and head back to Uncle Joe’s produce stand where the three of them (Uncle Joe, Uncle Henry, and my grandfather) would stash it away until they could make the necessary deliveries or the necessary contacts for pick up. I never knew how much Uncle Henry got, but my grandfather got a jar (and a cut) for each batch he helped create.

My grandmother, my Aunt May, and my Aunt Louise (Uncle Henry’s wife and again not a real name) were horrified at all this. They just knew the men were going to be caught and it would bring shame to the family (apparently they didn’t understand how bribing the County Sheriff worked) and they wouldn’t be able to hold their head up in town or go to church (you get a scarlet A for adultery, do you get a scarlet M for moonshiner?). And what would happen to their immortal souls? Well, that was beyond comprehension. I heard the three of them complain about it time and time again, usually while canning peaches or snapping beans that had been bought with the moonshine money.

Me? I thought it was great fun. I got to stick my finger into one of the full jars a time or two. They say on some of the booze ads around here that you can taste the hint of pears or apples in the liquor. After my grandmother’s admonitions, all I could taste between the tears and the burning throat was brimstone.

One of the better ways for Uncle Joe to make money in the summer was to show up at the local church league softball game. Back then towns our size had church softball leagues. The various churches would put together a team made up of congregants and an occasional ringer (the local Assembly of God church got in trouble one year when they showed up with two ringers), someone would concoct a schedule (no games on Wednesday night as half the churches in town had Wednesday services), and the teams would play each other with the league winner getting a trophy at the big picnic bash that was held at the end of the season.

The softball park was on the edge of town (it’s still there), in fact left field of one of the fields was just outside the city limits into the county. There was a big stand of trees beyond the left field fence of this particular field and Uncle Henry would park his truck between a couple of trees just in the Sheriff’s jurisdiction and just outside the city police jurisdiction. He and Uncle Joe would wait there while my grandfather and I went to watch the game. There were some wooden bleachers on either side, so we would get on the third base side and I would watch the game. The theory was that “surely they wouldn’t be selling illegal liquor with that small child around, would they?” My grandfather’s job was to watch for who was heading out to the trees. If he didn’t know or trust the person, he’d wave to Uncle Joe and Uncle Henry would get in and move the pickup. If he did know the person and trusted him or her (some were women) he’d do nothing and the loyal church member would end up out by the trees with my uncles and come back with either a jar full of liquid or wobbly legs. Uncle Joe had a cardboard tube full of approximately shot-sized Dixie Cups for customer use and he always picked up and carted off the used cups (He was environmentally aware).

You had to be careful about when you went. If the Free Will Baptists or the Pentecostals were playing they would send someone down to stand in the trees and raise such a stink that Uncle Henry had to move the truck and anyone who wanted a snort wouldn’t be able to get one. On the other hand if the Methodists and Presbyterians were playing, Uncle Joe could make a week’s profit in a night. He said he always rooted for the Lutherans, they spent the most.

I moved away when I was 10 and Uncle Joe died in the late 1960s. Aunt May sold the produce stand and moved in with her daughter. Uncle Henry found other uses for the truck (I didn’t ask). As for the still, I have no idea what happened to either it or to the “stuff” recipe. I did get to watch some pretty fair church league ball over the years. I only remember the winning team one year. It was the Presbyterians. I’d like to think Uncle Joe’s moonshine helped them over the hump.

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5 Responses to “The Moonshiner and the Church League”

  1. W.k. kortas Says:

    The best stuff comes in jars like that and posts like this.

  2. William MillerW Says:

    If you’d had an Irish-Catholic Church in the area, your uncle could have retired a very young man. And they probably would have won the local pennant as well.

  3. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    I agree with W.K.

    EXCELLENT post!

    Glen

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