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Moonshine and Revenuers

Moonshiners in Hamlet, 1909.
Photo courtesy of J.A. Bolton.

Alcoholic Beverage Commission officers, or “old-time revenuers”, regard the secret making and selling of illegal whiskey not as a criminal offense, but as a tax violation. These men and occasional women, put in 60-80 hours a week at work and almost never take a vacation. Their primary job is to stop the making or selling of non-tax paid liquor, and more recently, the growing and selling of illegal drugs.

The last big boom in the white liquor business was during the 1960s and 1970s. It collapsed partly because of the rise in sugar prices, but also because merchants were required by the federal government to report all large purchases of sugar, although some did not.

A lot of times, an A.B.C. officer worked alone, but sometimes with a trainee. When a large operation was being raided, several officers or local law enforcement officials might work together to arrest the shiners and destroy the still.

Not only do A.B.C. officers checkout illegal stills, they also watch for, and catch, liquor selling bootleggers. Most bootleggers operate after the local liquor store closes. Moonshine, and even legally bought liquor, is sold by the drink, pint, and quart jars or in half-gallon or gallon milk jugs. It is sold out of houses and apartments, at crossroad stores, filling stations, at the back doors of hotels and in parking lots. Bootleggers often add Pepsi Cola or tea to moonshine in order to turn it the color of higher priced bourbon.

Most A.B.C. officers have a background in law enforcement or the military. Their jobs require working in all types of weather conditions, enduring snakes, ticks, redbugs, mosquitoes, and possible violence. Sometimes their job might require them to pose as a fish salesman, sawmill worker, preacher or some other profession that might help them make an arrest.

How does an A.B.C. officer know where to look for stills or a bootlegger’s bar? A lot of times, the officer will check with merchants that sell glass jars or plastic jugs in large quantities. They check on sugar sales, strange activities or smells in the woods, foot or car traffic into certain areas, and do fly overs. Informants also play a big part in helping them find stills and bootleggers.

Most moonshiners are pretty smart, but on occasions they have been known to drink too much of their product and get careless. Shiners oftentimes encircle their still site with a strand of cotton thread, usually green or black. It is strung just inches off the ground and is invisible amongst the underbrush, and can be used as a warning of someone approaching.

When a moonshiner is caught, or doesn’t return to his still after several weeks or months, the A.B.C. officers either chop the still to pieces or blow it up with dynamite. When the still is blown up, the officer returns to make sure the dynamite has done its job.


In years past, if a still was discovered around election time, the local high sheriff would bring it to town and display it around the court house. Along with his deputies, he would have his picture taken with the still as a sign he was doing a right good job as sheriff of the county.

When first-time shiners are arrested and aren’t running a big operation, they usually get probation and a large fine. The bigger the liquor operation, the more time the shiners serve in federal prison, and all paraphernalia gets confiscated.

Catching a moonshiner at his still is one thing, but catching a wily bootlegger selling his product is another. Like moonshiners, a bootlegger can talk or shoot the grease out of a biscuit. Most didn’t get where they were at by being dumb or drunk. A lawman had to catch each one with the goods or selling them before an arrest could be made.

Talking with “Swamp Man,” a former A.B.C. officer really gave me some insight on his job. He said when checking on a still, he would park his car several miles away and walk in. Sometimes another agent would drop him off at the edge of a swamp or patch of woods and would standby for if and when the shiners happened to try and make a get- away by car.

Swamp Man said if he heard of a potential still sight, he would walk through the area in a zigzag pattern. Sometimes, he might find a sugar bag, a Mason jar lid, a shred of a pasteboard box or other tell-tale signs to guide him[J1]  to a still path.

Swamp Man also told me that once he and another agent were checking on a potential still on Mark’s Creek, not far from the South Carolina border.  The first time in, all they found was a small boat hidden beside the creek. The next time they walked into the creek, there was a truck parked next to the creek and the boat was gone. It wasn’t long before they heard someone paddling down the creek toward them; it happened to be two shiners with so many cases of moonshine in their boat that the boat was sitting only an inch out of the water. As the two shiners pulled into their make shift boat landing, their arrests were made.

After the shiners and liquor were safely locked up, Swamp Man and his partner went back to Mark’s Creek to find and blow up the liquor still. They took the same little boat and paddled about a half mile up stream and there in a fork of the creek was the still. With the dynamite lit, the two officers got back into the boat but were unable to get far enough away from the blast (fuses cut a little to short). Swamp Man said when that still blew, it threw all types of metal and wood all around them but luckily all they got was a scratch or two.

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