Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia

Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia

Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia

Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia


Homemade liquor has played a prominent role in the Appalachian economy for nearly two centuries. The region endured profound transformations during the extreme prohibition movements of the nineteenth century, when the manufacturing and sale of alcohol -- an integral part of daily life for many Appalachians -- was banned.

In Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia, Bruce E. Stewart chronicles the social tensions that accompanied the region's early transition from a rural to an urban-industrial economy. Stewart analyzes the dynamic relationship of the bootleggers and opponents of liquor sales in western North Carolina, as well as conflict driven by social and economic development that manifested in political discord. Stewart also explores the life of the moonshiner and the many myths that developed around hillbilly stereotypes.

A welcome addition to the New Directions in Southern History series, Moonshiners and Prohibitionists addresses major economic, social, and cultural questions that are essential to the understanding of Appalachian history.


In the 1880s, Randolph Abbott Shotwell, a prominent Rutherford County resident, chastised the moonshiners of western North Carolina. He believed that these illegal alcohol distillers were a “distinct” branch of lower-class whites, “ignorant of even the first rudiments of education and wholly unable to give any account of the outside world.” According to Shotwell, most of them had betrayed the South during Reconstruction by joining the Union League and bribing Bureau of Internal Revenue agents who enforced the federal liquor tax. the moonshiners, he explained, “were desperate characters … and the wealthy class, living in isolated farm houses, somewhat feared to incur their enmity.” Nor did Shotwell approve of legal distillers. He insisted that these highlanders, along with their illegal counterparts, encouraged the widespread use of alcohol in mountain society, flooding “the country with liquor—‘cheap as dirt,’ and quite as filthy.”

Shotwell’s remarks must have disturbed distillers on both sides of the law in the Carolina highlands. As head of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Rutherford, Cleveland, and Polk counties, Shotwell had been an early advocate of the moonshiners in their fight against the Bureau of Internal Revenue during Reconstruction. Like most other mountain whites, he feared that this agency promoted the expansion of federal authority. Moreover, Shotwell had befriended moonshiner Amos Owens and other illicit distillers who had joined the kkk to protect their economic interests. Despite his earlier positions, he refused to allow the KKK’s legacy to be associated with such uncivilized and violent men. Legal distillers found Shotwell’s comments disheartening as well. Before the Civil War, most highlanders, especially those living in more remote parts of the region, viewed these men—and women—as legitimate entrepreneurs. By the 1880s, that had changed. Portrayed as the purveyors of social discord, licit distillers discovered that the broad base of support they had enjoyed in western North Carolina was slowly diminishing.

This book explains why that change in attitude occurred. It probes the impact industrialization had on mountain society, examines how federal liquor taxation affected party politics in southern Appalachia, and describes the rise of the prohibition movement in western North Carolina during the nineteenth century. These phenomena, combined . . .

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