A book published last year by UNC Press explores the history of fast cars and moonshine in North Carolina (and Wilkes County), a path well-trod by historians.
In writing “Tar Heel Lightnin’: How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World,” Daniel S. Pierce had a very difficult task: finding something new to say on the subject. I think he does just that, deftly navigating the narrative with his engaging but also scholarly voice.
Considerable space is rightly given to Wilkes County, which Pierce calls “unarguably the state’s moonshine capital,” and bootleggers who drove souped-up flathead V8 Fords like the late Junior Johnson, who unsurprisingly is named a “N.C. Moonshine Hall of Famer.” Johnson is pegged as the “most undeniably famous moonshiner in the state’s history.”
Pierce writes in the introduction that, while it’s impossible to put an actual number on it, the creation of illicit liquor was almost surely one of the largest industries in the state from the 1860s to the 1960s. He argues that moonshine was as important as tobacco, textiles and furniture in the interweavings of the state’s economic, social and cultural fabrics.
Moonshiners in Wilkes are credited with developing a revolutionary type of still called a steamer still, or Wilkes-type still, in the early 1900s. It used steam engine technology from the railroad and logging industries to make distilling more efficient—but it also led to injuries or deaths from exploding steam boilers.
Pierce makes the surprising case that besides Wilkes, the other moonshine capital of the state in the 1920s and 1930s was Buffalo City, in the swamps of Dare County about 20 miles west of Manteo near the coast. Buffalo City was a logging boomtown in the late 1800s that turned to serving rye bootleg liquor up the East Coast when quality timber became increasingly scarce. Swamps, like the rolling foothills of Wilkes, made for good hiding places for stills.
The author devotes an entire chapter to the important role that moonshiners played in the origins and early development of NASCAR racing. He calls the building of North Wilkesboro Speedway by Enoch Staley and Charlie Combs over six months in 1946 “one of the most successful ‘if you build it, they will come’ projects in sports history.”
Pierce describes the repercussions of an exposé of the Wilkes moonshine business by investigative reporter Vance Packard of American Magazine in 1950, which asserted that everyone in Wilkes benefited in some way from the illegal activity. “Of course, the article horrified political and business leaders in Wilkes County,” noted Pierce. The Wilkes Chamber of Commerce wrote a 1,500-word letter to the magazine, protesting that the article had overplayed the role of moonshine in the county and demanding that another article be written on the other industries in the county. The letter, as you might imagine, fell on deaf ears.
The moonshine era came to an end in the 1960s, when many stills in Wilkes were replaced by sprawling chicken farms, and better road infrastructure made it easier for people to commute to factory jobs. The opening of state-run Alcoholic Beverage Control stores in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro in 1965 also sounded the death knell of illegal liquor here.
Pierce writes that an “amazing revival” of moonshine occurred in the mid 2000s, as Food and Drug Administration-approved moonshine found its place on ABC store shelves. Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon was produced by Piedmont Distillers in Madison, which was founded in 2005 as the state’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. Midnight Moon soon became quite popular and is still sold in all 50 states.
Pierce cites Wilkes County’s Call clan, with moonshine roots planted deeply in the 19th century, as an example of how moonshining was often a family affair,
The “Uncatchable” Willie Clay Call’s grandson Brian Call, alongside wife Laura, now runs Call Family Distillers in Wilkesboro. Pierce mention George Smith’s Copper Barrel Distillery in North Wilkesboro, but the smaller-scale Holman Distillery in Moravian Falls flies under his radar.
While corn liquor was by far the most popular distilled commodity, Pierce also acknowledges the popularity of homemade brandy in the state. He includes peach brandy as part of Johnson’s legacy, and the local seizure of apple brandy distilled by Dean Combs—the all-time NASCAR Dash Series winner, Johnson’s former crew chief and Charlie Comb’s nephew—in 2009.
In his epilogue, Pierce suggests raising a toast in honor of the state’s rich moonshine heritage. In a similar spirit, I salute this well-written, citation-chocked tome that will appeal to both casual readers and researchers. Cheers!