CP MOTORSPORTS: TOM HIGGINS: MOONSHINERS VERSUS REVENOOERS
As mid-October nears we are left to only remember some very special autumn days in the mountains of Wilkes County, N.C. A few years ago a civic group in the area that once was known as “The Moonshine Capitol Of The World” annually staged a unique public event: It was “The Oldtime Moonshiners and Revenooers Reunion.”
They brought back the men who ran the stills making illegal liquor and the government lawmen who chased and sometimes caught them. Hilarious stories flowed from the former antagonists like high-powered hooch. I’ll especially remember one reunion… The day dawned cold and rainy on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011
Fog hung low, masking the beautiful autumn foliage in the mountains of western N.C.
Despite the dreary conditions, the show went on. And what a show it turned out to be!
The stars were a dozen men whose "competition" in the late 1940s and early '50s generally is credited with inspiring the start of stock car racing.
Junior Johnson was there, along with fellow 'shiners Clay and Don Call, Boots Shew, Millard Ashley and Dean Combs.
The former officers, wearing green uniforms and badges, included Bob Powell, Tommy Chapman, Bob Graham, Will Blocker and John Westra. They were joined by the long-ago secretary in the Alcohol Law Enforcement office in Wilkes County, Beula Souther.
The tales the old rivals told for a gathering of about 200 made being outside well beyond bearable at the old home-place in a picturesque mountain valley where the late NASCAR champion Benny Parsons grew up.
Johnson had an anecdote about running out of gas while being chased by "revenooers" one night near High Point.
He turned off the lights and drove his 1940 Ford behind a barn at a farmhouse. The lawmen went roaring on down the highway.
Luckily for Junior, no one was home at the farm.
Junior saw a tractor at the barn and guessed that it had gasoline in the tank. It did.
Johnson siphoned some fuel into his car and headed home.
Some days later, Johnson made another liquor run to the area. He stopped at the rural home again and handed a very surprised farmer $20 for the fuel he had taken.
Junior never was caught on the highway. However, the lawmen staked out his father’s still one night and caught Junior after a footrace.
He served 11 months and 3 days of a year-and-a-day sentence to the federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. Junior was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan on Dec. 26, 1985. He became the only American in history to be handed a pardon in person in the oval office by a president.
Same as Junior, all the other moonshiners on the stage served time. Mostly, they were caught by revenuers they now consider friends.
Don Call laughingly recalled being sent away just two weeks after getting married.
"Judge Johnson Hayes told my wife he was going to do her the biggest favor anyone ever had," said Call. "The judge said, 'I’m giving your husband a year and a day. You won’t have to put up with him.'
"I got out after four months because she later went and pleaded with the judge. But you might say I spent most of my honeymoon at Chillicothe."
Shew told the audience, sitting on hay bales and huddled under umbrellas, that in 1951 he served time at a federal prison in Virginia with a teenager that he called "a pretty good little ol’ boy." The crowd gasped when Shew revealed that prisoner was Charles Manson.
Shew related that he once sold 900 gallons of hooch and got paid in all $2 bills. "I had $1,800 worth of $2 bills," he said.
Shew got the nickname "Boots" because he always took his brogans off when he was at a still.
"I figured I maybe could outrun those fellers over there (the lawmen on the opposite side of the stage) a lot easier if I was barefooted. I felt I could run 15 miles an hour faster without shoes on."
Clay Call, who has a great collection of restored hauler cars, said his favorite to load with liquor was a ’59 Dodge with a D-500 engine.
"It would do 180 to 185 miles an hour," Clay said, as if there was nothing to it in that era, especially on a highway. Many racing teams of those days would have been overjoyed to reach such a speed.
Combs had been "busted" just a few months earlier, the most recent NASCAR figure to be charged with distilling spirits illegally. However, he didn’t have to spend any significant time behind bars. "They took into account that I cooperated fully with the officers," explained Combs, who won 60 races and five championships in NASCAR’s old series for sub-compact sedans.
Combs revealed that he did go to prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in 1973 for making and hauling moonshine.
"As I was getting out, I told my pals among the other inmates to pick up newspapers, ‘cause they were going to read about me," said Combs. "I told ‘em I was going to start racing and be a winner."
Combs kept the promise.
Ashley was the senior member of the moonshiner group founded by Benny Parsons’ widow, Terri, who held the party at her beloved husband’s old homeplace in a picturesque mountain valley.
Millard served sentences at three different prisons, including the facility at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. "Eglin was a nice place," said Ashley. "It wasn’t a bad prison at all, except for the fence."
Both Millard and Clay Call are now deceased. And that reunion five years ago, which I emceed, turned out to be the last. The oldtime moonshiners and revenooers who played such a colorful part in our nation’s history are indeed a dying breed. And that’s beyond sad…