(Elizabeth City, NC) White Lightnin’: Whiskey and Revenuers is the newest exhibit opening Saturday, October 9 at the Museum of the Albemarle. Distilling liquor is one of the oldest manufacturing industries in North Carolina, brought over by Europeans settling the state in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the mid-19th century, federal taxes placed on liquor forced some producers to hide their stills from tax collectors. Locally, and into the modern era, this type of liquor was commonly known as moonshine, white lightning, juniper juice, rotgut, Hertford County Poison, and corn squeezing, among many other colorful names. Moonshine and white lightning remain the most commonly used names and when mentioned, conjure up visions of men tending stills in dark swamps under the light of the moon, or of fast-driving runners hoping not to be caught. Making moonshine stems from deep traditions that continue even into the 21st century.
Whiskey production in northeastern North Carolina dates back to the Colonial era when it was legal to make it, and stills could be found on many home sites. In 1791 Congress placed an excise tax on liquor to help pay national debts incurred from the American Revolution. This tax was greatly opposed by those who relied on making whiskey for their livelihoods. Congress finally repealed the whiskey tax in 1802 and by the turn of the 19th century, whiskey had surpassed rum as America’s distilled beverage of choice.
In 1862 the federal government re-imposed taxes on liquor to raise money to fight the Civil War. Individuals could not make liquor without paying a tax collected by agents of the Federal Internal Revenue Bureau. North Carolina Senator Zebulon Vance fought against revenue laws in 1876 and named the revenue agents "red-legged grasshoppers." The 18th Amendment (ratified in 1919) restricted the manufacture, transportation, import, export, and sale of alcohol. It took effect in 1920 and changed moon-shining forever.
The need to produce, out of sight from a much increased law enforcement presence, meant many of these individuals hid their stills, in the deep woods of the Appalachian Mountains or the dense swamps of northeastern North Carolina.
Once moonshine had been made at the still site, it had to be transported to waiting customers. “Moonshine runners,” or people who transported the illegal whiskey, became famous when they started using souped up automobiles to carry moonshine over back-country roads to markets in cities and towns. Such cars and drivers are thought to represent the foundation of stock car racing that later became NASCAR. This exhibit includes an actual still confiscated in a raid and parked in the lobby, a 1957 Chevrolet, like the ones used as a “moonshine runner.”
The Museum of the Albemarle is located at 501 South Water Street, Elizabeth City, NC. (252) 335-1453. Find us on Facebook! Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 9:00 am - 5:00 pm, Sunday 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm. Closed Mondays and State Holidays. Serving Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, Northampton, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington counties, the museum is the northeast regional history museum of the North Carolina Division of State History Museums within the NC. Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities and the vision to harness the state’s cultural resources to build North Carolina’s social, cultural and economic future. Information is available 24/7 at www.ncculture.com