Professor Dan Pierce chronicles the Southern tradition of moonshine
(July 1, 2013)
The story of moonshine has been told on TV reality shows and caricatured in novels for years, but Dan Pierce’s latest book, Corn from a Jar: Moonshining in the Great Smoky Mountains, shines the light on the generations of ordinary folk for whom distilling moonshine was a family tradition, and sometimes a means of economic survival.
Corn from a Jar chronicles the development of moonshine from its early legal days, through prohibition and the struggles against federal agents, ending with the newly legalized fledgling moonshine industry. It’s an approach perfected by Pierce’s examination and teaching of close-to-home Southern Appalachian history.
“What we do at UNC Asheville in the humanities is look at the human experience,” said Pierce, UNC Asheville chair and professor of history. “Examples come up frequently in my teaching, and students are always fascinated by it – it’s a good way of engaging them.”
From NASCAR to Moonshine
Pierce also is the author of Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), a book which whetted Pierce’s interest in a study on the history of moonshine.
“The story of moonshine and of NASCAR is about people dealing with poverty in creative ways and not always legal ways – people trying to find ways to transcend their circumstances,” said Pierce. “One of the things I like to talk about most in class with students, and they really respond well, is the question of what we call ‘agency’ – how people respond to difficult circumstances, whether racism, poverty, class divides, ethnic divides. I think we have a tendency sometimes in academia to picture people as helpless victims. From my experience, that’s rarely true.
I think in the rural South and particularly in the Southern Appalachian region, there weren’t many families that weren’t involved with moonshine somehow,” said Pierce. “At some point in their life, they made liquor, they hauled supplies to a still, they had a store and made money selling sacks of sugar and mason jars, or transported it at some point. A lot of people are surprised by a comment that might come from a grandfather who may have been a Baptist deacon, who also hauled liquor as a teenager. It was a real common thing people did to supplement their income.”
Learning from Family Traditions
Distilling spirits has been a tradition among the Scots-Irish who settled in the mountains of Western North Carolina. And that was true for Cody Bradford ’07 who earned his degree in history from UNC Asheville and earned a place in his professor’s book by putting his family tradition to work as one of the pioneers of the newly legalized, fledgling moonshine industry.
It was Pierce’s class in Appalachian history that led Bradford to understand moonshining as a regional heritage that was both a product of social conditions in the region and a contributor to the region’s history. “I was originally into world history,” said Bradford, “and then I focused on Appalachian history because I found that there is so much here that no one knows about.”
Bradford’s family owns and operates Howling Moon distillery near Asheville, incorporating the original condenser from Bradford’s great-great grandfather. He uses old oak barrels, caulks the still’s pipe joints with rye paste and includes the traditional “thump keg.”
“The thump keg really thumps,” said Pierce, who transitioned from professor to student on a few occasions in researching the book, learning from Bradford about his family tradition and the production process. “That really helped me understand what it takes to do this and do it well. It takes some knowledge.”
This was not a knowledge Pierce acquired growing up. “My father was a Baptist minister here in Asheville,” he said. “Southern Baptist teetotaling was hammered home.” But other families and churches had different attitudes.
Bradford’s attitude toward it has evolved as well. “Making moonshine has been a part of our culture since we landed here, and a lot of people have survived and lived off of it,” he said. “So I wanted to do it to preserve the history and what people know – what it’s really supposed to be like, to do it the traditional way.”
Corn from a Jar also preserves this history and shares the stories of the ordinary and extraordinary people involved its production. Order online from the Great Smoky Mountains Association.