Stills in the hills: Lincoln author pens moonshine memoir
LINCOLN — What is known about the life of Virginia bootlegger Willie Carter Sharpe comes together in a patchwork of fact and legend, but one thing was for sure: She could drive like hell.
It’s estimated that during Prohibition, Sharpe hauled more than 200,000 gallons of moonshine from points south to points north, and she could earn as much as $50 a night doing it.
“With the flick of a special switch, she could turn off her taillights, making her harder to spot from behind,” writes Lincoln author Louella Bryant in her new book, “Hot Springs And Moonshine Liquor.” “When revenuers shot at her tires, she took to dark country roads and lost them on deadly curves and steep ascents. She came alive when she drove, adrenaline rushing through her veins, every nerve alert.”
Federal agents finally caught up with Sharpe in 1931, Bryant explains, but only because her brakes failed and she crashed headlong into them.
Finding no liquor in her car they arrested her for reckless driving.
“Reckless?” Sharpe protested. “Why, it was inspired!”
Sharpe hailed from Franklin County, Virginia, about halfway between Roanoke and the border with North Carolina — and just a few dozen miles from Bryant’s own ancestors, who were almost certainly moonshiners themselves.
“Hot Springs,” whose subtitle is “A History of Illegal Whiskey in the Shenandoah Valley” and is part history and part memoir, is Bryant’s seventh book. She opens it with a photograph of her great uncle Bures Paxton, who’s sitting with a couple other fellows on a huge metal contraption.
“What’s that machinery?” she asks her Aunt Hilda, who was then in her 80s.
“It’s a still,” her aunt said.
“My family made moonshine whiskey?” Bryant asked.
“Everybody did in those days,” Hilda said.
So begins a fascinating personal and historical exploration of the role that alcohol has played in American society since the 1700s.
Bryant’s German ancestors immigrated to Virginia in 1748, and their tale unfolds against the backdrop of early American history. At the same time, she traces the evolution of moonshine production — not only in Appalachia but among Virginia’s colonial elites.
One of the most fascinating chapters describes the process of distilling liquor. Bryant begins with a bit of poetry:
“By a clear spring, set up your equipment — pots, copper piping, spigots, etc. You’ll want clean, clear water that runs cold from the mountains. Keep silent. The only sounds should be the gurgle of water over rock, a rustling of leaves in the breeze, the creak of crickets. There will be the sticky smell of pawpaw and honeysuckle, the taste of copper on the air, the sour sweet flavor of mash fermented for eight patient days.”
By the end of the chapter, the reader has received a decent chemistry lesson.
“It’s prudent to test whiskey before you drink it,” Bryant writes. “Pour a bit into a spoon and set it alight…. A safe distillate burns with a blue flame, but if the liquor is tainted, the flame burns yellow. A trace of lead will give off a reddish flame. As they say in still culture, ‘Lead burns red and makes you dead.’ If the liquor doesn’t flame at all, you may have distilled at too high a temperature.”
Another test, she writes, is to pour the moonshine in a jar and shake it up.
“A bad batch will bubble up and hold the foam, but good shine will settle quickly.”
Making moonshine is illegal in Vermont, so one of the most entertaining scenes in the chapter describes Bryant’s encounter with the clerk of a Vermont brewing supply shop.
“I want to make some moonshine,” she tells him.
The clerk is so thoroughly freaked out by this that no amount of southern charm can coax practical information from him.
Each chapter of “Hot Springs” ends with a moonshine-inspired — or moonshine-infused — recipe: “Bootlegger Pot Roast in Whiskey Coffee Gravy,” for instance, or “Peach Whiskey Chicken.”
The chapter on women in bootlegging was especially fun to write, Bryant said, but she acknowledged reserved some of the material on Willie Carter Sharpe for a future project.
Bryant has just completed a screenplay about Sharpe’s life, with the hope of bringing this larger-than-life character to the big screen someday.
In the meantime, readers will get a kick out of “Hot Springs and Moonshine Liquor.” It’s great fun to read.
For more information, and to purchase a copy, visit tinyurl.com/yxha3rud. Bryant also has her own website, louellabryant.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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