By Sidney Underwood
I have always been fascinated by stories of moonshiners and their adventures in trying to evade the revenuers. At my cabin is a video cassette of THUNDER ROAD starring Robert Mitchum and Gene Barry. I must have watched that movie at least 25 times seeing it first at the Mt. Zion Drive-In Theatre on a warm summer night in 1959.
I learned recently that THUNDER ROAD has achieved cult like status among Mitchum's fans. Not surprising since he epitomized the term "Cool" for many members of my generation who came of age in the 1950's. Perhaps it was his laid back style and not giving a damn attitude that impressed us teenagers who are now, sad to say, in our seventies. It didn't hurt that he was shown as a fearless back roads driver capable of spinning a bootlegger turn and taking his whiskey car to the absolute edge of disaster all the while ready for whatever came next with that ever present cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth. The most memorable scenes of the movie for me occurred when he was being pursued by a hitman and door handle to door handle coolly flicks his cigarette into the man's face causing the bad guy's car to crash and burn. Those chase scenes along dark mountain roads are unforgettable.
THUNDER ROAD was released in 1958 in black and white and was shot on location near Asheville North Carolina and Knoxville Tennessee. The movie is loosely based on an incident that occurred on Kingston Pike in 1952 near Knoxville when a moonshine driver was killed. Mitchum wrote the script and was a co-producer of the movie.
Mitchum plays the part of Korean War veteran, Lucas Doolin, returning home to the family business of making and transporting illegal whiskey. Watching the first few minutes of the movie, we see his fatalistic attitude and realize that he will eventually come to a very bad end. His war experience is understated except for a military shield mounted on his bedroom wall and a neighbor's remark that, "Lucas has a machine gunners attitude." Mitchum's son, James, is shown as his younger brother and Lucas is determined that the brother not follow in his footsteps.
Lucas's car in the early movie scenes is a gray 51 Ford flat head V8 coupe with three two barrel carburetors uncluttered by air filters. That might suggest lightning bugs and other insects of the night could find their way into the throats of those fixtures when he is making whiskey runs. Also, there is a scene when Lucas drives his whiskey car into a garage to off load his hundred and thirty gallon trunk tank when you can clearly hear the loping idle of a three quarter camshaft.
Keeley Smith, the singer, plays Lucas's girlfriend and worries about him when he is making his night runs into Memphis, Knoxville and other places. Jaques Aubuchon plays the gangster, Carl Kogan, who is trying to force the whisky makers under his control.
If you like action packed movies of that era that were a staple of Saturday night drive-ins in the 50's and 60's, I highly recommend this old classic. It is still available on Amazon.
Currently, I'm reading a novel about moonshining in North Carolina in the early 1950's. Entitled THE GODS OF HOWL MOUNTAIN and authored by Taylor Brown, the story involves another man returning from the Korean War minus his left leg below the knee. Rory Docherry, haunted by memories of the war, has to learn to drive and shift gears again with his new wooden clutch foot. In this very descriptive narrative, we see him overcoming his disability and running whiskey for a remote mountain clan in a retro-fitted 40 Ford coupe named MAYBELLINE. The locals always recognize his car when they hear him coming down the mountain into town by the rumble of his, "Built Motor." His mother resides in a mental hospital, the result of a brutal attack that left her pregnant with Rory. Subsequently, he was born in that hospital. Raised by his grandmother who has dark secrets of her own, Rory has learned to survive by whatever means necessary. This book is raw and gritty. Sometimes I find myself not believing what I am seeing on the pages.
Although it is a work of fiction, Taylor Brown has done his research and gets the details right. If you share my interest in moonshining and the men who drove the cars, you should read this book. I'm sure the local library can obtain it for you.
One of my uncles, who shall remain nameless, was in the illicit whiskey business in the early 1930's during the GREAT DEPRESSION. Unable to find work, he agreed to deliver the product for a local moonshiner into the Glen Elk area of Clarksburg. Driving an unassuming Model A Ford coupe with a false rumble seat, he made deliveries on a weekly basis. Half gallon jars of crystal clear moonshine whiskey sealed with zinc lids and packed in burlap were transported in a hollowed out area below the welded shut rumble seat. His liquid cargo was undetectable. Amazingly, he drove through downtown Clarksburg during daylight hours always waving to and smiling at the police who were directing city traffic. In six months he earned enough cash to buy a new car and start a nest egg for his upcoming marriage. Later at his wife's urging, he quit running whiskey and moved to Ohio and found a more socially acceptable job.
Years later when asked about driving the moonshiner's whiskey car during the 1930's, he always responded that it was easier to see the road during daylight hours and the headlights on his boss's Model A often shorted out leaving him totally in the dark at night! He said no one would ever suspect an innocent looking farm boy like him of doing anything illegal. He was that type and should have gone into acting because he looked innocent enough, but actually was anything but. He truly was a fox protecting the preverbal chicken house.
The GREAT DEPRESSION created hard times and people did what they had to do to survive. With jobs nonexistent, many families survived on the profits of making moonshine. I am not defending or condemning my uncle for his involvement in illegal whiskey. He was simply delivering a product that was in high demand. Whiskey making stills were operating all over the state during prohibition. The funny thing was that most of the men in each community knew where the stills were located, but never told the revenuers!
Since everybody is into genealogy today, if you check your family tree, you just might find that one of your relatives had something to do with making and distributing moonshine. Ironically, a legal version of moonshine is now available at retail outlets. It is claimed to be from the original recipe and is clear as water just like the moonshine of yore.