White lightning, mountain dew, hooch. These are the names associated with moonshine, or illegally made liquor. And while moonshine is readily associated with mountainous regions in the U.S., Museum of the Albemarle chief exhibit designer Don Pendergraft says the Albemarle was king in the state when it came to the clear liquor.
“More liquor was made here than any other part of the state,” said Pendergraft.
Pendergraft and his staff are putting the finishing touches on a moonshine exhibit at the museum, due to open Saturday.
When you walk into the museum lobby, the first thing you’ll see is a beautiful 1957 Chevrolet, series 210. The car is on loan to MOA from Wayne Perry of Perry Auto Group. It represents a piece of moonshining history that would eventually give birth to NASCAR.
Moonshiners relied upon fast cars with modified engines. Cars like the ’57 Chevy would be loaded up with jars of white lightning and driven through back roads to various drop off points. A fast car was a must for these drivers who would be tasked with outrunning law enforcement officials.
“No one could catch them,” said Pendergraft.
In fact, the drivers were infamous for their cars’ speed and their own agile abilities behind the wheel. So much so that they would compete with one another, something that eventually led to organized stock car racing and NASCAR.
But close to home, liquor was made in the swamp with illegal stills. Pendergraft says one of the reasons this area was so prolific in the production of illegal liquor was the waterway. Moonshine could be floated up the canal into Virginia and Norfolk where there was a large market, he said.
In the museum’s first floor exhibit room you’ll see an interpreted history of moonshining. A swamp scene complete with an authentic still will visually describe what took place back in the murky shadows of the Dismal Swamp.
The still is on loan from the Alcohol Law Enforcement agency, or A.L.E. Pendergraft says because it is still illegal to assemble a still, the museum had to gain permission from the district attorney’s office before erecting the relic, that comes complete with state evidence tags.
“It’s an illustration of the process,” said Pendergraft.
Locally, perhaps the most
famous moonshiner was Alvin Sawyer. Sawyer, whose original still is on permanent display in the second floor “Our Story” exhibit, will feature prominently in this exhibit.
Pendergraft says he was well known in the area for making quality moonshine, however he “never drank it.” Sawyer had a number of locations where he made moonshine, but one of the more creative was beneath the floor of his bedroom.
Pendergraft says sheriff’s deputies discovered the still beneath his bedroom on a raid of his home. Sawyer was said to have excused himself from the deputies for just a moment. He jumped out of a window and couldn’t be tracked down by the deputies.
But Sawyer had been arrested a few times. On one occasion he stood before a judge and was told “not to make any more” moonshine.
Pendergraft says Sawyer is believed to have leaned over to his attorney and whispered, “I ain’t gonna make anymore of it, but I ain’t gonna make any less.”
His arch-nemesis was a sheriff’s deputy by the name of Benny Halstead. It was said that Halstead made it his business to track down Sawyer whenever he could. The two men, however, retired to a nursing home together, living side-by-side. Pendergraft says they spent their waning days sharing stories about the chase.
The exhibit opens Saturday and is free to the public. For more information call 252-335-1453.