Moonshining began early in American history. The United States imposed a tax on liquors in order to help pay for the expense of war during the Revolution. During the Revolution the American people had fought to get out from under the oppressive British taxes so they were not pleased to have to continue paying taxes - even though it was for their own government. So they decided to ignore the law and just continue making their own whiskey.
For these early moonshiners making whiskey and selling whiskey was not just a way to make extra cash - it was how they survived. Farmers could survive a bad year by turning their corn into profitable liquor, making the harsh frontier existence bearable. Paying the tax meant they were not able to feed their families. The Revenuers (Federal agents) who came around to collect the tax were attacked and some were tarred and feathered.
In 1794 several hundred angry citizens took over the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., and President George Washington called out 13,000 troops to dispense the mob and capture its leaders. This Whisky Rebellion was the first major test of federal authority for the United States government. Despite the failure of the rebellion, moonshing continued throughout America, especially in Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas and other southern states. Excise taxes on alcohol didn't go away, so moonshiners always had incentive to avoid the law. Gun fights between moonshiners and the revenuers became the stuff of legend.
Then in the 1860s as the government tried to collect on the excise tax to fund the Civil War, Moonshiners and the Ku Klux Klan joined forces and the battles escalated. The moonshiners became desperate by intimidating locals who might give away the locations of stills and attacked IRS officials and their families. Now the tide of public sentiment began to turn against the moonshiners. This became a factor in the temperance movement which sought to ban alcohol throughout America.
In the early 1900s, states began passing laws that banned alcohol sales and consumption. In 1919, the 18th Amendment was added to the United States Constitution. Congress then passed the National Prohibition Act, also called the *"Volstead Act," to provide the means for enforcing the amendment. This amendment banned the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages. But Prohibition did not decrease the public's thirst for whiskey, beer or wine; the alcohol consumption doubled between 1921 and 1929. Americans spent more money on alcohol as they had when its sale was legal.
Prohibition was the greatest thing the moonshiners could have asked for. Suddenly, there was no legal alcohol available. Moonshiners could not keep up with the demand which led to cheaper, sugar-based moonshine, as well as watered-down moonshine. The distillers would do anything to increase their profit. Organized crime blossomed as speakeasies opened in every city. These secret saloons had hidden doors, passwords and escape routes in case the "Feds" ever showed up to conduct a raid.
The Depression years were another period when times were hard and many people did what they had to do to get along. What they did wasn't always right.
Bootleggers, moonshiners, still operators and rum runners were the modern-day Robin Hoods, carrying out their illegal activities for the benefit of themselves, but also for the benefit of the poor and needy.
*Andrew J. Volstead practiced law at Granite Falls, and was the Yellow Medicine County attorney in 1886. He was a congressman from 1903-1941. He died on Jan. 20, 1947.
(Continued next week)