And it came to pass that the population of the pristine, pious pueblo of Asheville became pitifully parched following the 1919 ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol for consumption. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states were given the option of legalizing alcohol, but most Bible Belt states continued the ban.
It was said that as long as voters could stagger to the polls, Oklahoma would remain a dry state, and the same could be applied to North Carolina.
None of this was lost on a group of ambitious, skillful, courageous road warriors who braved the threat of law enforcement and the dangers of death-defying, high-speed chases over wicked mountain roads to supply our mountain community with the distilled fruits of our great American agricultural output.
These drivers delivered two different classes of products: “stoh-bought likker,” sold legally in other states but illegal in the Old North State; and our own homegrown product, made from fermented corn. “Moonshine” was produced by the light of the moon, to prevent law enforcement from detecting the smoke from the fire required to distill the resulting alcohol.
All that was needed to distribute joy and pleasure (or pain and suffering, depending on one’s viewpoint) to consumers was a delivery system. Accordingly, these young adventurers became highly skilled drivers and mechanics, altering their car engines to produce more speed and power in an effort to outrun the sheriffs and revenuers with whom they were constantly at war.
Enforcement of liquor laws was spotty and, as with all prohibited social sins, often tarnished by politics and corruption.
Eventually, this trafficking spawned a new industry: NASCAR, whose roots were in the informal races held on dirt tracks scattered around Western North Carolina and beyond. There, young drivers like Junior Johnson competed for the bragging rights for best driver and fastest car.
Of course, much like the stories of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, this whole illegal industry was romanticized and glorified by songs and movies such as Thunder Road, filmed right here in Asheville in the late ’50s with Robert Mitchum in the lead role.
The filming generated much excitement, and many locals served as extras. Several appeared in the classic scene at the Sky Club (a famous nightclub up on Beaucatcher Mountain — but more about that in a future column).
The only liquor runner I ever actually knew was a wonderful black man with a big, toothy smile and a great sense of humor. “Willie” told me about a time in his younger days when he was hauling stoh-bought likker out of Newport, Tenn., a notorious supply center. He was running up old U.S. 25 toward Asheville — a narrow, winding road — and just as he crossed the Buncombe County line, the revenuers were waiting for him.
Realizing that he couldn’t outrun them, Willie pulled around a curve out of sight, jumped out of his car and ran up the mountainside.
The revenuers didn’t make a great effort to find him in the dark, content just to confiscate his car and the illegal hooch. Willie waited till they’d left and then hitchhiked back to Asheville.
When he got home, Willie took off his cork leg, pinned up his pants leg and fetched his crutches. He caught a ride to the courthouse and hobbled into the magistrate’s office to report that his car had been stolen.
The revenuers had just finished swearing out a warrant for Willie based on the car registration, telling the judge how the driver had abandoned his car and run up a mountain.
The judge took one look at Willie and, concluding that a man on crutches couldn’t possibly do that, dismissed the warrant and gave Willie back his car.
In his later years, Willie worked for Harry’s Cadillac doing road repairs. Once, he was called to fix a flat tire on a hot summer day for a woman who lived on Kimberly Avenue.
She was very unhappy about the flat tire and berated Willie mercilessly. Finally, he’d had enough. Grabbing the ice pick he’d used to remove the hubcap, Willie unceremoniously drove it into his cork leg — right in front of her.
The lady fainted.
This is the first installment of Sin City History 101. Your homework is to rent and view Thunder Road.