The Moonshine Highway
The making of moonshine, or unlicensed liquor distilled from corn, was a common business throughout the South, particularly during the tough years of the Great Depression. It was a business that required little in the way of capital, and the production center needed only a bit of privacy and distance from centers of legal activity, otherwise known as police stations. It was also a help if the neighbors could be trusted not to pry into matters of no concern to them. The climate for such a business was perfect in the lonely, northern regions of mountainous Habersham County.
Of course, a product must be able to reach a market, so transport of the distilled moonshine became almost an art form, and gave birth to a major national sport known as NASCAR. In the northern wilds of Habersham County, Georgia, the transportation of moonshine involved a rapid cruise down a winding road now known as Scenic Highway 197, but back in the 1930s and on into the 1950s, it was simply the "road along the river" or "the road down from the lake."
A trip down Highway 197 today is a beautiful drive, with majestic Lake Burton at one end and the quaint town of Clarkesville at the other. But if you turned the clock back 60 years or so, the trip was pretty harrowing, especially if your vehicle was overloaded with alcoholic liquid. The highway was a dirt road in those days, and it was well known to "revenue agents" as a frequent thoroughfare for distillers. With all the twists and turns and heavily wooded areas, there was no problem for law officers to find a hiding place to watch the road. Meanwhile, the liquor haulers became expert at modifying their cars' engines and suspensions so that ordinary-looking vehicles could hold heavy weight and, of course, travel fast if necessary.
The word "moonshine" today makes most people think of something rather quain timest, but in reality the ol' days weren't quite so nice. North Georgia is the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, historically one of the most poverty-ridden areas of the United States. Farming and textile mills were the primary industries, and neither occupation paid very well.
In a cash poor society, the liquor trade often provided what little income many families had, although today, only a few old timers can recall how ordinary the hidden industry was to them. Several buildings in Clarkesville had basements loaded with supplies for the liquor trade: sugar, glass containers, and perhaps an apparatus for filling the containers. At least one Clarkesville business kept a large vault for the safe storage of the cash needed to transact the business, since an illegal operation didn't work well on credit.
But don't look for monuments or landmarks to the moonshine trade. Older members of the community, particularly the womenfolk, may have known little about it. Those who did know don't like to tell strangers about an activity that could have landed a relative in jail. Also, moonshine wasn't an elegant business like the wineries and micro-breweries of today. It produced raw grain alcohol, and most people sipping the finished product would gasp and choke for a while. Most moonshine was blended with other liquors and fragrances, but that happened much further down the road, usually in cities or larger points on the distribution routes.
Today's Highway 197 is a beautiful, blacktopped road, meandering past tasteful subdivisions and vacation homes of people who have no need to earn extra income by cooking corn mash in the woods. It is a quiet road much of the time, except on weekends when the "lake crowd" comes visiting or during Leaf Season when the hills are alive with color.
Highway 197 follows the Soque River, which is known to trout fishermen as one of the finest trout streams on the planet, and the talk today is more about preserving the beauty of the place instead of how to hide a still or bribe an official to look the other way. But perhaps, on moonlit night if you listen carefully, you may still hear the echo of a big block V8 engine rumbling somewhere off in the distance, and memories of the olden days will roar to life.
Wallace Wenn is a freelance writer, antique dealer and auctioneer living in Clarkesville, GA.