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Moonshining in Franklin County: Bootlegging goes legit

A copper submarine moonshine still is shown next to a vat of whiskey that is collecting what is being distilled through the submarine.
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VPM News Focal Point
Moonshine stills like this copper submarine at Twin Creeks Distillery used to be common sights in Franklin County, when bootlegging was rampant.

For the better part of the last century, Franklin County had a notorious reputation as the moonshine capital of the world. Now distillers are turning to live music and tasting rooms to sell white lightning legally. 

TRANSCRIPT FROM VIDEO

BILLY SHIELDS: This crystal-clear stream of liquid is part of what's called a bead, the central component of the country whiskey known as moonshine. Now, a simmering hot product, legally produced by at least three distilleries in Franklin County in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This particular variety comes from what is known as a copper submarine made at the Twin Creeks Distillery, owned and operated by the Prillaman family.

CHRIS PRILLAMAN: I mean, it ain't been that many years ago that people just wouldn't talk about stuff like that at all. It was a hush, hush thing, you know.

BILLY SHIELDS: For years, Franklin County has been known as the moonshine capital of the world. A reputation that locals say was more infamous than famous.

RONALD “ROOSTER” HODGES: What you don't understand Franklin County is, basically, everyone was in whiskey someway somehow.

BILLY SHILEDS: Ronald "Rooster" Hodges is a former bootlegger. In a previous life, he hauled gallons of the stuff on these country roads for years.

RONALD “ROOSTER” HODGES: I love the whiskey business. It like gets in your blood, you can't stop it, you know. I've hauled enough to fill up the Mississippi River, I guess.

BILLY SHIELDS: Hodges also sells his own brand of legal moonshine out of a tasting room near Smith Mountain Lake. Another legitimate business borne from the county's notorious past.

BETHANY WORLEY: It's a scene I thought I would never see in my life. It is unbelievable that it is now legal to make moonshine.

BILLY SHIELDS: The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum proudly displays the tools of the trade. What's known as a turnip-style still, the copper coil known as a worm, and glass jugs traditionally used to bottle the liquor. Time was when these were components of a back woods smuggling enterprise that was worth millions operating during prohibition.

BETHANY WORLEY: Oh, huge industry. Yeah, it didn't slow down.

BILLY SHIELDS: A big factor that made this region prime shine country is simple. It was always close to the railroad, meaning raw materials like sugar, corn and mason jars could get in and the clear liquor could roll out. Shortly after prohibition ended in 1933, the Federal Government prosecuted what became known as the Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935, which ensnared Anna Prillaman's great-great-grandfather James Walker "Peg" Hatcher.

ANNA PRILLAMAN: That Great Moonshine Conspiracy trial of '35 was a huge deal here and it caught national attention.

BILLY SHIELDS: For many people, the ingenuity and do-it-yourself nature of moonshining is a point of pride.

BETHANY WORLEY: You can imagine when he first started, how, I mean, it is hard work and you're in the mountains and you're on hillsides. How hard it is hauling in all this stuff.

BILLY SHIELDS: The stills of Franklin County kept churning out this stuff illegally well into the 20th century until a sting operation about 25 years ago.

RONALD “ROOSTER” HODGES: And it got to the point that the ATF and the ABC officers, they couldn't control it.

BILLY SHIELDS: Boiling points out it was a business that required creativity and intelligence.

BETHANY WORLEY: The stereotype of the hillbilly is just ridiculous, because these people were very smart in what they did. They were very creative. And again, the ingenuity behind some of this is amazing.

BILLY SHIELDS: Now, shine comes in all kinds of flavors like you'd see at Roosters, but the old still hands will tell you it could be a hard business to break into.

RONALD “ROOSTER” HODGES: People see what I'm doing, or Chris is doing. All they see is money, okay, which is not, it's not all money. We have to butt our butts, bust our butts for this.

BILLY SHIELDS: And the Prillamans have more than money. They have music and the Twin Creeks tasting room in Rocky Mountain.

CHRIS PRILLAMAN: I like to think it, we're making a really craft product you know, and I don't want it to get out of our, I mean, growing is a good thing, but it's hard to find help. You know, we got a very limited crew to what we can do. If you ain't careful, you'll try to sell what you ain't got.

BILLY SHIELDS: These days, it may be a craft that is for many more notable than notorious. For some in Franklin County, it can provide the perfect backdrop for a dry nip and a bit of old time music.

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Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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