In the Pale Moonlight:
Pottery & Alcohol in North Carolina
FROM THE EARTH: WHISKEY, WINE, BRANDY, AND CLAY JUGS
North Carolina’s earliest European settlers quickly set up stills to manufacture alcoholic beverages, especially whiskey made from corn, rye, barley, or wheat. Poorly constructed and maintained roads and the absence of railroads before the 1830s made transportation of farmers’ grain crops from one region to another a difficult and inefficient task. Distilled spirits made from these grains were much easier to transport, and the revenue gained from their sale contributed significantly to many farmers’ incomes.
Following the Revolutionary War, the newly formed federal government levied a tax on whiskey in 1791. This first American excise tax was championed by treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton who saw it as a way to retire a sizeable war debt. Opposition to the tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion and repeal of the tax in 1803. Former Sandy Creek, Randolph County, N.C., resident, Hermon Husband, was tried and condemned to death (though he avoided that fate) for his role in rebelling against the tax. Before fleeing North Carolina, Husband was a firebrand leader of the Regulators (made famous at the Battle of Alamance).
Once again, whiskey was taxed following the Civil War. Legal distilleries were licensed and regulated by the U.S. Treasury Department whose agents (“revenuers”) were responsible for collecting the tax. For every tax-paying operation, there were many more illegal stills run “by the light of the moon” by so-called “moonshiners.”
North Carolina’s nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Piedmont Region and Mountain Region jug makers were well positioned to supply containers for the storage and transportation of distilled spirits. In the early 1890s, nearly twenty registered stills, and an unknown number of unregulated ones, were located in Randolph County. County-by-county across the state, reports of lawful and illicit distilleries were similar.
Prohibition, instituted by law in the early years of the twentieth century, did little to reduce the production (or consumption!) of distilled spirits in North Carolina. In the foothills of the western Piedmont, Wilkes County gained the reputation as the state’s “moonshine capital.” There, the Kennedy Pottery supplied local moonshiners with jugs well into the new century’s early decades. The history of stock car racing is inextricably tied to stories of Wilkes County’s notorious “bootleggers” whose fast cars transported loads of non-tax paid whiskey over the area’s narrow, hilly, and curvy roads. Despite its heightened reputation for moonshining, many other counties rivaled Wilkes County’s output of “white lightening.”
Whiskey was not the only alcoholic commodity produced by North Carolina distillers. In the nineteenth century, the state was the nation’s leading producer of wine. French vintners, like A. J. Lemort, produced quality claret, Sauternes, and sherry wines near Tryon, N.C. Western North Carolina apple crops, and fruit crops from other regions, were transformed into fruit brandy.