In an effort to explore the 20th century more fully, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) is hosting an exhibition about illegal alcohol distilling in southwest Virginia in defiance of the federal excise tax. Moonshining in the Blue Ridge, produced by the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College, opens at the Society on Sat., […]
In an effort to explore the 20th century more fully, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) is hosting an exhibition about illegal alcohol distilling in southwest Virginia in defiance of the federal excise tax. Moonshining in the Blue Ridge, produced by the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College, opens at the Society on Sat., May 10, 2008, and explores more than a century of moonshining traditions in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“This is the most comprehensive exhibit that has ever been developed on moonshine in the country,” said J. Roderick Moore, exhibit curator and Director of the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum. “The exhibition was so popular at the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum that we decided to keep it open for an additional eleven months. National Geographic Magazine even filmed the exhibit for their documentary on moonshine.”
Distilling know-how came to Virginia’s southwest region with the first English, Scots-Irish, and German settlers. The United States government briefly taxed alcohol in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and following the Civil War an alcohol tax became permanent. By the middle of the 19th century, scores of Blue Ridge distilleries were licensed. With the railroads expanding and roads improving, the Blue Ridge distillers’ extended their distribution area to include the coal miners of West Virginia and factory workers in Southside Virginia and North Carolina. By the late 1800s, Franklin County, Virginia, alone had more than 70 legal distilleries and an untold number of illegal moonshine operations.
The twentieth century witnessed the death of the legal distilleries because of Prohibition, the subsequent flourishing of illegal stills, conspiracies involving local politicians, the moonshiner’s adaptation of larger stills and new technologies, the shift from brandy and grain alcohol to so-called “sugar liquor,” market expansion to such large urban centers as Philadelphia, an increase in legitimate job opportunities for people who might otherwise have gone into moonshining, and the transformation of the moonshiner into a regional folk hero.
Items on display in Moonshining in the Blue Ridge include actual stills, a full-size diorama of a still operation, still makers’ tools, dozens of period photographs, video interviews with moonshiners and federal agents, documents, jars, and other memorabilia.
“Much of what people think they know about moonshining is shrouded in folklore and myth,” said James Kelly, Director of Museums at the Virginia Historical Society. “We wanted to take this opportunity to tell the real story of an important cultural and economic phenomenon to visitors who couldn’t make it to southwest Virginia to experience the original exhibit.”
On May 28, Moore will do a gallery walk of Moonshining in the Blue Ridge to explain how moonshining paralleled economic conditions and the availability of legitimate jobs during its peak.
“Today the number of people involved in moonshining appears to be just a small fraction of the number running stills in the 1940s and 1950s, but moonshiners are still in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia,” said Moore. Though he added, “The skills of making smooth corn liquor or apple brandy are all but gone because today moonshiners deal in quantity rather than quality.”
Moonshining in the Blue Ridge is made possible by the generous support of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The exhibition closes at the VHS on Sept. 22, 2008.
For more than 175 years, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) has been the steward of our state—and often national—history. Hours: Monday–Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m.–5 p.m. (shop and museum galleries only). Admission: $5/adults, $4/seniors 55+, free/under 18 and free/members. Admission to the galleries is free on Sundays.
For group tour information, call (804) 342-9652. For more information, please call (804) 358-4901 or click here.
–The information above was provided by Jennifer E. Mason,
Media Relations Specialist at VHS