A couple of days ago my dad and I drove the mile and a half down winding Rugby Road to my Granny's house to prepare it for a few visitors coming in for the festival weekend. To be honest, I mainly went to pick the wild spearmint that grows in random patches behind the house, but figured if my dad wanted to leave the shop long enough to accompany me that would be nice. The foliage surrounding the house has become thick and green, all of those smells that cause my dopamine receptors to burst to life is in full swing now that it is almost full on summer. I always miss my Granny when I visit her house, but this time that pull to see her there was stronger, more tangible. She felt so close, like she was just around the corner, just out of reach. Any minute though she would be there to offer me a salted cucumber spear straight from her garden.
While Daddy and I waited for the water heater to fill, we walked out to the porch and sat down on the rickety furniture I have known my entire life. Rocking on the porch swing, my dad asked me, "It sure is quiet here, isn't it?" We reveled in the peace, just listening to the birds and crickets chirp happily, accompanied by a polite babble of the branch that tumbles down the hill alongside the house. I wondered what my Granny would think about the trees so heavy with fat green leaves that they blocked her view of the road, so she couldn't see who was coming by . My dad told me that my Grandpa Walt would clear the trees on the bank every year, so usually you could see out past the road.
"It was so clear over there that I found a shot up silver dollar on that hill once that blew over from Lauren and Leah's property." My dad said. "..What?" I asked. To clarify, my dad explained that Jess Hall (who had the property before Lauren's parents) and the local moonshiner and fellow neighbor Hunter Henderson would get drunk and shoot at coins from the top of the neighboring hill, he said. I asked why on earth they would shoot their money if there was little to go around and he explained that when those guys got drunk they were sure they were millionaires. Hunter, oftentimes found sitting tipsy outside the corner store, claimed to be worth half a million dollars. My dad absolutely didn't believe it, but after hearing more about him, there's a good chance he was telling the truth.
Hunter Henderson (distant relation but a local hero to my dad) was the a moonshiner who had property up the holler directly across from my Great Granny Ollie's house. It turns out he had the biggest still in operation in Virginia when it was discovered and busted in 1955. He and his partner Farmer Spencer figured out a way to take electricity from an abandoned house in that holler and used it to power their operation. Given the amount of electricity necessary to power a still, they likely bribed a meter reader. Most folks building stills would power them with coke, a type of coal that has been heated without the presence of oxygen. Unfortunately though, coke would produce smoke making those stills easier to spot by authorities.
Farmer also had several coke operated stills on his land. He didn't want anyone to get too close to them so he developed some interesting methods to keep folks out. In order to discourage hunters from hunting near his still, he built a machine resembling a windmill that would produce a low groan every time the wind blew. He began a rumor that he had seen and heard an odd sounding animal up in the woods. Any hunters that stumbled upon the sound as a gust of wind kicked up, they took off running, and spread the word to their friends. Farmer also built other parts of the still, using ingenuity to develop the highest quality equipment for brewing their shine. His craftiness helped to build Hunter's still to a significant operation. He and Hunter must have been an original version of Walter and Jesse.
After supplying everyone nearby who wanted to partake in the white lightning, the operation expanded to neighboring counties, then nearby states. Hunter had a truck fitted with a false bottom onto which which he loaded six cows. Those same six cows, standing over gallons of moonshine, made the trip to his brother's place in Maryland and back each week. From there who knows how far the moonshine reached. Another method of concealing the alcohol was a logging truck stacked to the brim with a hollowed out pile of logs. A local police officer who pulled up next to the truck at a stoplight noticed that the springs of the truck bore little weight. That operation was finished.
One day a mixup with the bribed meter reader caused the electric company to send a substitute to check the old house up the holler using more power than every other house in the county combined. He tipped off the police to the goings on, and just like that men from the FBI, and every officer working in Grayson County and several in North Carolina were hidden in laurel thickets surrounding the massive still. While they watched, thee officers counted ten gallons of moonshine per minute was being produced. When the officers raided the still, all the men, maybe 10 or 12, scattered into the woods. One old man, caught by the straps of his overalls, dragged an officer through a briar patch before he succumbed to arrest, each coming out on the other side a bit worse for the wear. When everyone was rounded up and hauled off, the still was destroyed with dynamite, and the rest hacked with axes. The pieces were left on the property and are likely still there. My dad remembers the windows of his house shaking from the blasts.
The cool summer breeze brushed my skin as I sat back on the bench on Granny's porch listening to my dad talk about Hunter Henderson. His memory is astounding and so were the characters of his childhood. I am extremely thankful that I have this time with him to learn about my roots and spend a few of my precious minutes just drinking it in. It doesn't burn like moonshine would, but still it leaves me with that warm, calm feeling *I'm told* accompanies a sip of shine. This is my Father's Day.
I want to take a little bit of space down here, if you're still reading, to thank you for doing so, and to invite and encourage you to come hang out with me at Grayson Highlands next Saturday (always the third Saturday in June, rain or shine) to hear some amazing music. There will be the annual guitar competition where one extremely talented musician wins a brand new Henderson guitar, my amazing friend Jane Kramer will be performing, as will Ricky Skaggs, the Gibson Brothers and quite a few more. I also want to quickly thank Feedspot for featuring this blog in their list of Top 20 Apprentice Blogs to Follow. It is an incredible honor to be recognized and I appreciate everyone reading so much!
|The most magical place.|