The Magnificent Moonshine Stills of North Carolina


One of North Carolina’s many claims to fame is that NASCAR racing, one of its gifts to the world, had its origins in bootleggers and moonshiners building cars fast enough to outrun the cops. While it’s often said with a laugh today, the story is no joke—not only was former racecar driver Junior Johnson indeed first a rumrunner, but the Tar Heel State proudly boasts one of the longest and most active distilling industries in all of the United States.

But you can’t have the juice without the juicer, and authors Frank Stephenson Jr. and Barbara Nichols Mulder have done us all a great service by tracking down the sources of the famed swamp juice, in their book North Carolina Moonshine: An Illicit History. To celebrate their achievement, we here at Crime Capsule wanted to show off a few of the more wild and wacky moonshine stills that once graced the forests, swamps, and mountain hollers of the twelfth state of the union.

To learn the stories behind these stills, to meet their ingenious architects (bearing names like Bo Weevil and Hog Bear), and to hear the daring stories of the federal raiders that pursued their prey across the state, you’ll have to read the book for yourself. We assure you, there’s plenty more where this came from. But to slake your thirst for the good stuff, we proudly present these to you now.

Bottoms up!

Whiskey stills found in North Carolina came in all sizes, including this Lilliputian-size working still that was seized in Gaston in 1960 by Northampton County deputy Ed Ingram. Photograph by Frank Stephenson Jr.

This motor oil can still was captured on a July 30, 1957 raid in Harrellsville by Hertford County deputies Leon Perry and Fred Liverman. Courtesy of Frank Stephenson Jr.

ATF agents used 110 sticks of dynamite to destroy a jumbo still near Murfreeboro in October 1960. Mash and muck were dripping from the trees following the blast, which, for some reason, left one barrel of mash standing. Courtesy of Fred Liverman.

Alvin Sawyer, a master welder and Marine Corps veteran of World War II, spent most of his life making moonshine in the northeastern part of North Carolina. He became known as the “King of Moonshine in the Great Dismal Swamp. Courtesy of Frank Stephenson Jr.

Jumbo stills—such as this one, which was raided near Cofield in Hertford County on February 17, 1956, by ATF and local moonshine raiders—were found all across North Carolina. Courtesy of Fred Liverman.

Improvisation was the keyword for this bootlegger; he used an old wash tub, a garbage can and other odd pieces to cobble together this junk still. Northampton County moonshine raider Earl Outland hit this still on April 24, 1971, near Henrico. Courtesy of Earl Outland.

In Hamlet, a one-hundred-gallon whiskey still was captured by Sheriff Hinson and deputies on May 25, 1909. Courtesy of State Archives of North Carolina.

This thirty-two-thousand-gallon jumbo still was raided in July 1951 near Windsor by Bertie County sheriff Thomas Joyner and deputies. Courtesy of Peggy J. Frisbie.

In July 1965, James Saunders and other ATF agents hit this masonry still in Bertie County. The rig was fired by propane gas and was of a design not often found in eastern North Carolina. Courtesy of James Saunders.