1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


John McCurdy

Over at the Radford Arsenal in Virginia in the early fifties if you were a young fellow in your early twenty’s, your car was almost certainly a 1939 or 40 Ford, preferably a coupe. You would have to have it outfitted with Firestone 500 tires and dual exhaust’s and Glass-Pac mufflers. These things were outwardly noticeable. If the funds could be found, a little souping up of the engine was likely. A set of hi-compression Offenhouser aluminum heads would get you a compression ratio of about 8 to 1, a ¾ camshaft with stiffer valve springs and above all an Edelbrock dual manifold and two Stromberg 97 carburetors would do a lot for the old Ford flat head V8. But the main thing that HAD to done was to install heavier rear springs so the back if the car sat noticeably higher than normal. That was how a moonshiner/bootleggers car always looked when empty. When loaded with shine the car sat level like John Q. Public’s old Ford! That’s what the boys wanted and got..

Around Radford and Pulaski and on down into Floyd County, Virginia; moonshining was a business, just like running a store or a service station. Curtis Turner, one of the original Stock Car racers along with Junior Johnson would have made fun of today’s sissy drivers on the NASCAR circuit who had never driven a load of likker at breakneck speeds over curvy mountain road at night, and without lights!

The Arsenal, used a lot of 190 proof pure grain Alcohol in the manufacture of gun powder, it ran through 8 inch pipes all over the place, unfortunately it was denatured by the addition of Benzene, (a fact pretty much ignored by many who worked there and who liked a nip or so on a cold night), they were of the opinion and acted on it, that filtering the alcohol through 8 slices of white bread somehow got the benzene out of the alcohol. One of the favorite ways of indulging was to purchase a bottle of Orange Crush when entering the plant and then at quitting time pour half of it out and replace with the 190 proof alcohol, thus making the mix 95 proof!

They would then drink the concoction while walking to the gate, place the bottle in the bottle rack like good ole boys and leave the plant. Never mind that by the time they reached their vehicles they were drunk as skunks. The roads from the Powder plant to Dublin, Christiansburg and Radford had more than its share of fatal accidents as you can well imagine.

I left the Arsenal in 1955 to go into the Prison Service. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my first duty station; Ashland, Ohio was the place where the Federal System sent old moon-shiners, Many of the inmates there had discovered long before that corn was much more profitable a commodity when liquid than when in its original state. Doing prison time was, for them, part of the overhead for their chosen business. Excellent inmates, they wanted only to be subjected to as little harassment as possible, get visitors on the weekend and do their time and get out and back to, as they put it, “the copper”! I enjoyed listening to them tell lies about the life to their fellows, none of them ever took any shortcuts in making “likker” to hear them tell it, and their product was the smoothest and best in the area, wherever that area was. It was those “City Fellers” that put the old car batteries and the dead possums in their ‘white lightening” to make it “bead up”.

When I transferred to Alderson I found that I had not left the moonshine makers behind. The Federal Prison Camp at Mill Point in Pocahontas County, each day Monday through Friday, sent a bus load of male inmates to the women’s prison to do the heavy maintenance and construction type work. They were the cream of the crop of the moon-shiner’s, they had been in prison so many times they were automatically sent to a minimum security camp!

Generally older, poorly educated, backwoodsmen, they were delightful men to talk with and especially to listen too, I was as much a friend to them as was possible under the circumstances.

Some of the employees of the prison had developed a taste for “moonshine,” even though they would deny it in talking to the Mill Point inmates.

It is interesting to recall that on a training trip to the Atlanta Federal Prison, I was told, that the Warden there, each Saturday morning would find two quart jars of “shine” sitting on his back porch in the housing area of the prison, apparently a gift from some released inmate in appreciation of the way he’s been treated! I know that the Warden drank his share of Moonshine, because on one occasion at a party he asked me, as a West Virginia Mountaineer, to give my opinion on the “White Lightening” he had hidden under the table. After a sip, I could only tell him, “Warden, although I’m from West Virginia, I’m not the authority you may think I am, but I can definitely tell you that what you have is moonshine!”