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‘Corn from a Jar’ traces moonshine’s Smoky Mountain history

corn from a jarMoonshine: A word that paints a thousand pictures. In fact, according to author and University of North Carolina at Asheville history professor Dan Pierce, life in the Smoky Mountain region for many often brings to mind a vivid image of the lowly moonshiner holding his XXX-labeled stoneware jug, passed out beside his cooper pot still.

“My hope is to humanize the moonshiner,” Pierce said of his latest work, Corn From a Jar: Moonshining in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Whether it’s this iconic image or the late 19th century view of the moonshiner as “public enemy number one” or even the more recent romanticized vision airing on television screens today in the form of Popcorn Sutton and The Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners,” the truth of the mountain ’shine producer has gotten muddled along the way.

“It’s important to understand this regional phenomenon as the product not only of individual choices, but also of deep-seated cultural, economic and social conditions that created a complex and shifting historical context in which the moonshiners plied their trade,” Pierce said.

dan pierce
Corn from a Jar author Dan Pierce

The truth is many farmers/moonshiners benefitted themselves and their communities by paying their tax bills, mortgage and store bills; providing for their families’ needs; even starting businesses, from the revenue their product produced, said Pierce. Others cooked “sour mash” because their fathers and grandfathers before them had, simply upholding tradition; while still others suffered greatly when their moonlight activities crossed paths with law enforcement.

Corn from a Jar traces the history of moonshine back to its Scots-Irish ancestry, where “whisky production and drinking were integral parts of social, economic, and political life” well before settlers crossed the Atlantic. When they arrived in the New World in as early as 1620, they began to distill the local crop, maize or Indian corn, Pierce writes.

For 200+ years the practice of distilling whiskey went on uninterrupted until Congress enacted a $2 a gallon excise tax, up from the 20 cents previous required. Those who chose not to comply with the tax suddenly became outlaws, “…at least in the eyes of the federal government …” he writes. Famous and infamous names alike began to make the headlines, including Lewis Redmond, who killed a federal marshal in 1876 and was given the title of “King of the Moonshiners.”

If Redmond was the first famous “likker outlaws,” then Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton could be seen as one of the last, Pierce tells his readers. A mostly local Maggie Valley, N.C., celebrity for most of his adult life, Popcorn’s fame went global in 2008 when the documentary “The Last One” was followed the same year by the History Channel’s “Hillbilly: The Real Story.”

“Popcorn gave his fans what they wanted; the quintessential, bearded, salty, overall and flannel wearing, “medlin’ guvmint”-hating, good-old-boy moonshiner topped off with a pork-pie hat with a raccoon’s penis bone stuck through the crown,” Pierce writes.

stills captured by national park service
Stills captured by the National Park Service. Images from Great Smoky Mountains Association.

cops with stills
  still with car
Still with car

From illegal to elite, state laws governing the production and sale of moonshine shifted dramatically in the 2000s, allowing what Pierce calls “inspired entrepreneurs” to begin producing legal moonshine. The book concludes with the stories of Piedmont Distillers in Madison, N.C., Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Troy and Sons Distillers in Asheville, N.C. Even Popcorn Sutton, who committed suicide in 2009 to avoid a prison sentence, lives on today through the company that bares his name, Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey, and for which Hank Williams Jr. is a major investor.

Pierce, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and teetotaling mother, came upon the world of illegal liquor when researching his 2010 book “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France.”

“For me the story of moonshine is a story of how people of little, and often worsening, means tried to find ways to cope with the difficulties of life,” he said. “For many individuals and families, making moonshine, for at least part of their lives, was a logical act.”

Corn from a Jar, which is due out in June, is published by Great Smoky Mountains Association, a non-profit that supports Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Softcover copies are available for $9.95 at and for $5.99 in a digital format on iTunes. Local bookstores, as well as all seven National Park stores, will also carry the title. “The book is filled with amazing stories of hardscrabble mountain life in the days before anyone even heard of a social safety net,” said Steve Kemp, the book’s editor and GSMA director of interpretive products and services.

GSMA’s publications, including this selection, are designed to enhance greater public understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the national park. A national park partner, GSMA has provided more than $30 million to support the park’s educational, scientific and historical programs since its inception 60 years ago.

Support for the association is achieved primarily from sales of educational publications and from annual membership dues. Those who wish to enrich their national park experience are encouraged to become GSMA members. For more information about GSMA’s membership and volunteer opportunities, visit or call 888-898-9102, Ext. 222 or 254.

Source: Great Smoky Mountains Associatioin

Published June 29, 2013

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