Guided hikes in NC National Park focus on old moonshine stills
Joe Mickey and Bob Hillyer often come across surprises when venturing off the marked trails at Stone Mountain State Park, and not all of them involve snakes and bears.
The pair developed a nose to find rusty barrels, jerry cans, yeast containers and other remnants of the area’s long moonshine history scattered across the folds of the park’s 14,300 acres. Over the past 30 years, they have discovered and subsequently cataloged around 200 abandoned moonshine sites, most of which are on unmarked trails.
On Thursday and Friday, Hillyer led two-mile guided hikes off Garden Creek that passed through about 10 different sites in the park as part of the NC Trail Days, a four-day festival in Elkin that celebrates the parks and trails of the region.
Guided hikes are a smart and safe way to see the old junk of this infamous and illegal industry, which flourished in Wilkes County until the 1970s.
Any off-road adventure in this sprawling park is not recommended, said park superintendent Jeff Jones.
“We try to make our trails as safe as possible. Many stills are in areas that are not on marked trails, with a lot of havoc and rocky cliffs, ”he said.
Because distilling corn whiskey without paying federal taxes is illegal, the moonshiners must have been evasive, so they set up their stills deep in the woods to avoid federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, commonly referred to as “revenue. “.
The mountains that became part of Stone Mountain State Park provided ample cover for the dozens of moonshiners who lived there. Most of the stills Mickey and Hillyer have found are in the Wilkes County part of the park, which matches the county’s reputation as a hub for hooch.
Mickey, a native of Winston-Salem who now lives on State Road, is a long-time visitor to the state park. Hillyer, a resident of Elkin, is also a seasoned hiker who feels comfortable enough in nature to think outside the box.
“You follow the streams and you will find them,” Hillyer said of the old stills.
The two explored Stone Mountain a lot when their children were young.
“We started to find more and more stills, so we left the kids and got off the track,” he said.
Intrigued by the ancient stills, they discovered the art of distilling corn liquor and told locals about their memories of the area’s moon days, which ended around the time Stone Mountain became a state park in 1969.
“They all have stories,” Hillyer said of the former moonshiners he spoke to, “but whether or not they are true …”
Because the soil is not ideal for agriculture and there is little pasture in the area for livestock, moonlight has become a way for local people to earn money. The first stills in the 1800s used ovens built from stacked rock to heat mash. Although rare, some of the rock formations are evident in the park.
The most common stills in the park have been made from 55 gallon drums. Often two or even three drums were stacked on top of each other and welded together.
Dozens of these fallen stills are scattered around the southern end of the park, under white pines, amid piles of leaves. Last week, Mickey and Hillyer pointed out the jagged ends of the drums, a sign that a federal agent had destroyed its contents with explosives. Sometimes the income would swing an ax at a drum in an attempt to destroy the still and empty the mash. That wasn’t always enough, on one again you could see the scars from a single gash that had been soldered and mended.
One of Hillyer and Mickey’s most exciting finds was a still rusting submarine behind a bank of rhododendrons a few feet from an unmarked trail. Built by men who learned welding skills after World War I, the underwater stills could hold up to 900 gallons of mash. They were big winners who could bring in $ 5,000 a week.
“This one was here a long time before we saw it,” said Mickey as he walked around the old tank.
Still not far from the submarine, at the top of a steep hill, men strolled past an old cemetery, with gravestones and smoothed footstones, another reminder of the copious settlers who once inhabited this rugged wilderness.
Hillyer took pleasure in imagining what was going on in those remote hills when seers and incomes played endless games of cat and mouse.
“You come across a still that hasn’t exploded and you’re wondering, ‘What happened? Why didn’t the income have this one? Maybe they were caught doing something else and decided to give up, ”Hillyer said. “I guess it’s the stories behind each one that interests me.”