Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

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"A Colorful Past," with Charles Fishburne of WCVE Public Radio

Jack Powell: I ran out toward the guy and he shot both barrels and I knew I was dead, I fell, actually I stumbled and fell, and it may have been in my favor.

Charles Fishburne: Jack Powell is one of the old time ABC agents. When probation began in 1918 thousands of Virginia farmers mostly in the mountain country built stills and sold moonshine. But when the repeal came 13 years later, nobody was about to give it up.

Powell: Back then like you got to look now, times got harder than they are now, the people are going to have something to make a living and back then it was even worst so they turned to making whisky and so if they got caught then they took their medicine.

Fishburne: Are the stills really as nasty as you describe one of them?

Powell: Well a lot of stills were, I have seen them where they had as many as 20 to 30 cans of red devil lye in them. They weren't in Franklin County they were in another county.

I've seen rats in them, I've seen ground hogs, I've seen squirrels, birds all kinds of things. They get up on the mash boxes, back in those days and they didn't have them covered up so they were full of mash like 400 gallons in a box and they have 20 boxes setting there and they get up on them and peck around for the grain and fall in and drown.

I've seen car batteries in them to generate heat. There are all kinds of things in mash boxes and stills they are not the cleanest things in the world when they are out in the mountains. Now I know up in Giles County they took a lot of pains in making their liquor, they kept their stills clean used copper stills and bury mash in barrels and covered them up to keep the deer out and us out. They put a 100 spools of thread around the still site so if we broke that thread they would know we were there.

Fishburne: Those days are mostly behind us, they, ABC does a lot more than just chase moonshiners.

Pamela O'Berry Evans: I find that people think we are a little more one-dimensional than we really are: we are a business, we are a law enforcement agency, we are tax collectors.

Fishburne: Pam Evans chairs the new ABC Board that enforces the law and some 15,000 licensed establishments and has contributed more than 1.25 billon dollars in tax money in the past five years.

Evans: A good thing about the 75th Anniversary we get to tell people what we are all about now.

Fishburne: Consequently, both ABC Board and Jack are 75 years old this year and tho neither chases moonshiners much any more, you get the feeling either could be up to it should the need arise.

Powell: Yeah, I do miss it, it was a adventure, it was a dangerous job at times, fast cars, you know you got to be tough as they are.

Fishburne: Jack Allen Powell has written two books on his adventures, A Dying Art 1 & 11, A History of Moonshining and Moonshiners and Me. Charles Fishburne, WCVE News.

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