The hot summer sun was already rising as Aldo and Edwin moved cautiously toward their home
on Grassy Creek. They had been up most of the night working a new batch of illegal whiskey. This concoction was known locally as ‘moonshine’
because it was said to be made only by the glare of the moon. The only light they had was an old carbide lamp used in coal mining.
Their trail led them up over Shack Ridge, down the watershed to where Grassy Creek barely had its beginnings at the head of Shortt
Gap Mountain. The two boys, in their teens, had worked very hard at the only means they had of making a few dollars. They were still
too young for coal mining. At this time, in the 1920’s, coal mining was still young in Buchanan County, Virginia.
was tall for his age, slender, with dark hair and blue eyes, reflecting his Irish/Native American heritage. Aldo, on the other hand,
had not grown tall as yet, but was somewhat more filled out, though the younger of the two. He seemed to know how to obtain more than
his share of their meager food.
Their father, John, was a hard riding, hard drinking, womanizing
man who used up every hard earned dollar the family was able to get. Too often he came in drunk, smelling of cheap perfume after one
of his escapades.
“I wonder who’s been stealing our likker?” Aldo questioned his brother.
“I just don’t see how anyone could find our still, Edwin opined. We’ve hid it real good,
and for anybody to find it by accident wouldn’t be possible.”
Sure enough, someone had
been filching their ‘shine’ and when this happened there was no money to be made. The two boys continued on with heavy hearts. They
knew that ‘moonshining’ was wrong but they took the chance, thinking to help their mother feed all the other children.
They went to bed that night thinking of ways to stop the thievery. As they slept together they were able to talk way into the night
and try to come up with some ways to find out who exactly was responsible.
“One of us is
gunna hafta stay by the ‘still’ and watch,” Edwin whispered.
“No, that would only get one
of us shot if we should happen to make a noise showin’ our wharabouts”, Aldo reasoned. “How ’bout if we pizen a batch and then we
would know fer sure who wuz a doin’ it.”
“No, replied Edwin, what if it turns out to be
some of our kin”?
“Yore right, we’ll just have to use sumpin’ that would make a person
real sick and not kill them.”
“How about we put a little carbide in the next batch,” Edwin
“Yeah, that’ll do the trick” Aldo agreed.
The two boys went to sleep with this thought on their minds.
Upon arising the next morning
the boys didn’t let on to their mother, Ede, what their plans were for that night. In fact, she wasn’t even aware that they were running
a “still”. She only knew that they stayed out late some nights.
Ede was a short, stocky
lady in her forties. She showed her mixture of Irish and American Indian. Her hair was long and dark, nose slightly crooked, with
eyes of bluish gray. She was very strong and would do most any work to feed her large brood of mostly boys. Eleven children had been
spawned in her womb beginning with Edwin who was the oldest.
After a breakfast of chocolate
gravy and biscuits, the only food they had in the house, they went out to cut enough wood for the day and to carry water from the
spring under the hill so Ede and the rest of the kids would at least be comfortable in their ‘shotgun shack’. The house was called
that because there was no plan to it so that rooms shot out in every direction, usually one being joined directly onto the existing
one. Many houses in Buchanan County were of the same variety. A new room was built as the family grew. There was no insulation and
sometimes knotholes were stuffed with whatever material was at hand, such as old worn out clothing or the Montgomery Wards catalog.
From the cracks in the floor one was able to see down to the dirt underneath. Carpet or linoleum was out of the question on their
“We’ve gotta be able to sneak away tonite without mom seein’ us, Edwin warned.
“Yeah, that’s gonna take some doin’ Aldo replied. “Mammy has ears like a fox and she can
sneak up on a person ‘fore they know what hit ‘em.”
“We’ll work out a way,” Edwin reasoned.
Both boys knew how cagey their mother was and had received the short end of the stick with
her many times as ‘boys will be boys’. Usually she had caught them in bed after one of their escapades and given them a licking before
they knew what hit them. She certainly did not spare the rod. She could not afford to with so many mouths to feed.
That night, Edwin said, “I think I’ll sneak down to the creek to see if that ole ‘coon has showed up again, wanna tag along, Aldo?”
“Sure, he replied, maybe we can have some meat for a change.”
Ede would cook anything the boys caught in the way of meat, except a skunk. Wild meat was usually all the meat they had.
“You boys be careful down thar, Ede warned, you know that painters travel at night!”
will, mammy, we ain’t scairt uv no painter.”
“Ye will if one ever gets aholt uv ye, Ede
replied. Ah hev hairt tell whar a painter can claw all th’ cloze off the back uv a fella ‘fore he tares intuh his innards”.
“Don’t worry mammy, we’ll be careful,” both boys promised as they ran out the door before she caught on to their schemes.
The boys went directly to the smokehouse where all the extra supplies were kept, which were few, and were able to scrape up enough
carbide to be able to have enough light and a little extra to put into the ‘shine’ batch at their ‘still’.
“This oughta do it, they agreed, if someone comes up with a bad case of stomach cramps, we’ll know who’s been filchin’ our ‘shine’.”
Stealthily, the boys went up by the side of the house toward Shack Ridge, up over the top,
and down the other side. Thick rhododendron, sassafras bushes, and scrub oak impeded their ascent. Hoot owls intensified the already
mournful atmosphere. The boys pondered deeply what they intended to do.
Upon arriving in
Shack Fork, they made their way to their distillery and prepared to run off a new batch from the mash that they had been fermenting
for a few days. The more fermented the mash, the better the ‘shine’ produced. Sometimes the mash was not fermented enough to produce
the right consistency, thus, lowering the proof. This meant a waste of time and money.
After the fire under the boiler became hot enough to boil the mash, the copper tubing was placed into the top of a jug to allow the
condensing process to begin. As the fire became hotter, the boiler began to bubble and this was what produced the ‘shine’. If anything
but copper was used, poisoning was the result.
Edwin and Aldo had learned their trade from
some of the best moonshiners in the County, the Boyds. This was learned while being ‘farmed out’ to help Aunt Mattie and Uncle Chase
harvest their large corn crop. The folks in Buchanan County always wondered why Uncle Chase raised so much corn. These
Before filling the jug, Aldo slipped several grains of Carbide into the
mouth. This not only created enough poison to make a person sick but unknown to the boys, created a very high explosive. They were
fortunate no sparks from the fire drifted to the top of the jug. That night the boys only ran off a couple of jugs for bait.
As they wended their way back across Shack Ridge, they laughed, as boys will, about how brave and sneaky they were.
“Boy, is that thief in fur a s’prise,” Edwin gloated.
“Yeah, he’ll be sorry he fooled with
us,” Aldo agreed.
They quieted down as they approached the house from the uphill side.
Going slowly into the house they tried to walk without squeaking a board, but Ede’s ears were always in tune to any strange sound.
“Did you boys ketch ’at ’air ole ’coon?” she inquired
“No, he was too sneaky fur us, Edwin replied, we’ll hav tu bait ‘im next time and set one uv our homemade traps.”
With that the boys went to bed and after giggling into the quilt about their exploits, they finally drifted off to dream dreams of
Next morning, the first one up was their dad, John, who had come home in the early
morning drunk as a skunk. He was throwing up at the back door, and saying something like,
“Man that ‘shine’ sure had a funny taste to it. It almost tasted like carbide and I’ve never seen likker bubble as you drunk it.”
His language was not angelic utterances.
boys turned to each other and smiled, they now knew who their thief was. Their own father had been trailing them to the ‘still’. He
was already slightly inebriated before he tasted their wares, otherwise, he would have noticed that the moonshine was not as clear
as it should have been.
This stopped the filching!