Updated: May 22, 2020
“Farmin’ in the woods” was a euphemism for moonshine as it was an activity usually relegated to hidden areas off the beaten path in a wooded area.
Moonshining brings to mind Prohibition for many people but it has a much longer history. The practice of making and selling liquor illegally was not just done in response to prohibition laws but also in order to avoid paying excise taxes. Scots-Irish immigrants to America transplanted moonshining knowledge by mid 1700s. Since then there has been a long history of government imposed taxes on alcohol as well as a long history of resistance to those alcohol taxes and laws. The first excise tax on whiskey in the US was levied in 1791. The Whiskey Rebellion, the protest of that tax, lasted from 1791 to 1794.
A series of books about “plain living,” Foxfire, is a great resource about rural life and culture including moonshining. Common in Appalachian mountain areas, moonshining was also popular here in Johnston County. In fact, in the early 1900s, Johnston County was deemed a “Banner Moonshine” county.
According to Foxfire, moonshine as a fine art disappeared with the age of modern medicine. As home doctoring lost its stature, demand for pure corn whiskey as an essential ingredient of home remedies vanished.
In moonshine’s heyday though it was how many people made a living. Some sheriffs understood that for many, making moonshine was how they fed their families. One moonshiner interviewed in Foxfire said: “I felt like I was making an honest dollar, and if it hadn’t’a been for that stuff, we’d’a had an empty table around here.” (Foxfire)
A friendly rivalry often existed between some moonshiners and sheriffs. Arrests were usually made by government officials, known as “Feds” or “Revenuers,” but during Prohibition enforcement was left up to local sheriffs who had to arrest people they’d known all their lives. Moonshiners usually reserved their hostility for federal agents and volunteers referred to as “Revenue Dogs” who helped sheriffs.
Several retired sheriffs interviewed in Foxfire agreed that most moonshiners ran small operations and the whiskey they made was in the best tradition of cleanliness. However, some moonshine was unsafe if it wasn’t made in safe or clean environments.
Moonshiners avoided detection authorities by hiding stills in remote, hard-to-reach spots, moving to new sites constantly between batches, using lookouts, covering stills with tree branches, and more. One method was to set up a still where another had just been cut down, as moonshiners could usually count on the sheriff or the feds not coming back for a couple of months. One of our news clippings for today shows that this wasn’t always true though.
The below article appeared in the Smithfield Herald on November 16, 1906.
It is titled “News Notes From the State Capital”
“Raleigh, NC, Nov. 14 – The revenue officers have been pretty busy during the past few days. Deputy Collectors Merritt and Lloyd captured one still last Thursday several miles from Franklinton, and yesterday went back to the same place and found another still in full blast, in exactly the same bed. One was an 80 and the other a 60 gallon capacity. The moonshiners got away, some of their pals having dashed across the fields and given them warning immediately before the officers arrived on the scene. The moonshiners are quite busy now making moonshine for whiskey use as they put it.”
The next article also appeared in the Smithfield Herald on January 18, 1907 referring specifically to Johnston County’s designation as a Banner Moonshine county.
It is titled “An Opprobrious Appellation”
“The following item appeared in Wednesday’s Wilmington Messenger from its Raleigh correspondent: Deputy Revenue Collector J.P.H. Adams has returned from a notable raid in Johnston County, in which he captured and destroyed five complete moonshine distilleries and got part of another. Johnston is now the banner moonshine county in this district.
Johnston County is not proud of being called the “Banner Moonshine County.” Let us throw off the name by stopping the nefarious business.”
While moonshining was how many made a living, and moonshine was obviously in demand, many others frowned on the practice, disapproved, or actively worked to stop the illegal manufacture of moonshine by reporting stills and supporting temperance movements.