September 23, 2023

Running Moonshine: “Wasn’t Nothing to It”

 SlackWater CenterThe SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the Center, which also allows students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work is published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some is published here.

Bernard “Nace” Mattingly (born in 1921), interviewed in 1991
by St. Mary’s College of Maryland students Matt Sauri with Van Aldridge
Opening this segment of his full oral history, Mr. Mattingly was asked for “some of your first memories about making moonshine.”’

I guess the first memories that I can recall is that my father always had moonshine in the house. They called it white lightning.

Of course he had these charcoal kegs that you buy from somewheres and he would put it in there. If I’m correct, you took whiskey and aged it. And it’s better if it’s aged. But when you put in this charcoal it would age. He’d sample it every so often to make sure it was right. You could tell by the color of it. But you know it would turn red in that charcoal, in that charcoal keg.    .  .  .

It didn’t have no proof to it, you know, it was maybe 75 proof or 80 proof and he liked it 90 to 92. And he also had a thing about that long [about a foot long] with lead shot in there. I’ve seen it a lot of the time. He kept it in a cardboard tube. It had lead shot and it was glass and he put it in the whiskey and it’d tell you what the proof it was. It’s like checking antifreeze in an automobile.  .  .  .

But he’d get this glass and get that white lightning and he’d put it right down in the jar and tell you what it was right there, whether it was 90 proof or 80-90 proof or 92 proof or whatever it was. It’s an alcohol tester. It’s like you testing antifreeze in an automobile.  .  .  .

But he would take it and put it in pint bottles and half-pint bottles … and I think the half pint bottles were worth two cents and the pint bottles were worth four cents. So you’d find these bottles and you’d bring them home. And you’d sell them for two cents apiece. And, you know, that was money for us ‘cause an ice cream cone was five cents.   .  .  .

But, of course now, I got informed by my father. He never did want me to fool with it, but my brothers made whiskey and I heard the stories about blowing up the kettle. They were down in the woods and revenue men came in and they took some of them away and some of them of them got away, ya know?

But one of my brothers did serve time. I don’t know how much. I think it was four months in the Maryland State Penitentiary for making whiskey. But he’s dead hats and bones.  .  .  .

I’d been to these kettles at times when they’d go and take the sugar in there and they walked it in. They wouldn’t take it in by a horse, or an automobile, or an old Model-T Ford. They’d walk it in on their shoulder and take a 100 pound bag of sugar on their shoulder and they’d take the empty jars in too, you know cases, jars, half gallon jars and when they went in they had a path … and when they got done the man would take twigs from them pine trees and stick them down so you couldn’t see this path cause the damn path was worn out from going in and out of there, see?

But they even got cloth like the camouflage they would use in the army. And they painted blue, green and all those dull colors and put ’em over top of the trees …  The revenue men would come over by airplane and check the woods where they thought there was a still.

If there was a farmer who had a good stream running through his farm you’d give him a case of whiskey a week, or a month, or something, and he’d let you come in there and make whiskey. You understand?

… the revenuers never bothered the farmers about having it. All they wanted was to catch the people that were there and prosecute them and also they’d blow the kettle up. They’d come in there with dynamite and blow it up. … You could hear them blow up the barrels, all these damn barrels and boxes that they had the mash in. And I mean you heard it. Maybe they had about four or five explosions and you know that so and so’s kettle was gone to hell, if you understand.  .  .  .

I’d hold some, but my father got on me real bad about holding. He said, “Nace, son I believe that you’re fooling with that moonshine. I hear you’re having a little time but you better leave it alone first or you’re going to be in jail like your brother was, you understand.” But anyhow, I had a foot about that long and a head about that big and it didn’t make no damn difference, see? I had a 1940 Ford then I got a ’41 and I could take that thing and put 30 or 40 gallons of whiskey into it and go up the road.

You’d go up get $10 a case for the whiskey we had. You know? You might have 10 cases of whiskey so $10 to $100 is a lot of bucks. And you’d go up there and deliver your whiskey and they’d give you sugar … and you’d bring it back down the road and that was another 10 bucks, see, to get the sugar here. Because you went to the grocery … stores like Guy Brothers and Herrs they had sugar in 100 pound bags but that was used for … apples and peaches and stuff like that when they canned them. … But then the revenue men would go to the stores and … [w]ell why is he buying so many, you know, he got ten 100 pound bags of sugar last month … gives them a clue as to where to look for the kettle.

…you take that whiskey up the road and bring back the sugar and man, I’ll tell you you’d make 200 bucks. God knows that’s a whole lot of coins there, . … you could buy a brand new 40 Ford for 740 dollars. … gas was like 17 cents a gallon. Wasn’t nothing to it.


The SlackWater Center posts are SPONSORED BY





The Slackwater Center

Subscribe to posts from the SlackWater center

Leave A Comment