History
6:03 am
Sun October 28, 2012

Closing Courthouse Brought Moonshiners To Justice

Originally published on Sun October 28, 2012 7:58 am

Moonshine used to be big business in the South, an illegal business that also kept the federal courthouses busy. Now one of those facilities, once on the front lines of the war on homemade booze, is shutting down.

The Johnson J. Hayes Federal Building is in Wilkesboro, N.C., where distilling corn whiskey in backwoods breweries was once the town's main trade. It's one of six federal courthouses closing in the South over the next year or two.

The courthouse sticks out in Wilkesboro; it's a modern white structure with sleek columns on an otherwise old-school brick Main Street.

The courtroom on the second floor is locked up with the lights off all but one or two days a month now. But this building saw a lot of action in the 1970s, even though just 2,000 people lived in town.

"In its heyday, it was a hub of activity," Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore says. "It had vitality that brought people to the downtown. Sometimes for the right reasons, other times for the wrong reason."

For a lot of people, that wrong reason was getting caught brewing and smuggling illegal whiskey, also known as moonshine. Wilkes County at one time was known as the moonshine capital of the world, says Jennifer Furr, director of the Wilkes Heritage Museum just down the street from the courthouse.

On display in the museum are both intact moonshine stills you might see in the woods and stills after they'd been busted up by federal agents — known as "revenuers."

The revenuers busted moonshine stills for what is now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. About a dozen agents worked out of the courthouse's basement in the 1970s.

Bob Graham was one of those agents, but hasn't been back to the courthouse in decades. Most of his old office is locked, but one room in the back he distinctly remembers — the one where they kept the confiscated alcohol.

"Liquor, moonshine; we only kept samples of the different seizures," Graham says.

Graham says the room used to be stocked with gallon jugs and quart-size bottles, and he swears they'd dump them out after testing for chemicals. Now, it's a storage space filled with boxes.

Graham's boss back then, Bob Powell, still lives in Wilkesboro with his wife, Betty. Powell has a lot of stories about the revenuers, and says it felt like they were catching people about every 10 minutes.

Priorities changed, however, and the basement office closed in the 1980s. The ATF left town to focus on violent crime in big cities, and locals say it's been a long time since the court was as busy..

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Moonshine used to be big business in the American South - an illegal business that also kept the federal courthouses busy. Now, one of those facilities once on the frontlines in the war on homemade booze is shutting down. It's one of six federal courts closing in the South. Michael Tomsic of member station WFAE brings us this story from Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: The Johnson J. Hayes federal courthouse sticks out in Wilkesboro. It's a white structure with sleek columns on an otherwise old-school brick Main Street. The courtroom on the second floor is locked up with the lights off all but one or two days a month now. But this building saw a lot of action in the 1970s, even though just 2,000 people lived in town.

MAYOR MIKE INSCORE: In its heyday, it was a hub of activity.

TOMSIC: Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore.

INSCORE: It had vitality that brought people to the downtown. Sometimes for the right reasons, other times for the wrong reason.

TOMSIC: A lot of people came here for the same wrong reason: getting caught brewing and smuggling illegal whiskey - moonshine.

JENNIFER FURR: Wilkes County at one time was known as the moonshine capital of the world.

TOMSIC: Jennifer Furr is the director of the Wilkes Heritage Museum down the street from the courthouse.

FURR: On display, we have a moonshine still as you would find it in the woods, and then we also have a busted still as you would find after the ATF revenuers would find it.

TOMSIC: The revenuers busted stills for what's now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. About a dozen agents worked out of the courthouse's basement in the '70s.

BOB GRAHAM: This doesn't look familiar at all.

TOMSIC: Bob Graham was one of them, and this is his first time back in decades. Most of his old office is locked, but he recognizes something when he goes for a door that opens to a back room.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

TOMSIC: So, would you, you know, best you can remember, kind of tell me what used to be in here?

GRAHAM: Liquor or moonshine. We only kept samples of the different seizures.

TOMSIC: Graham says this room used to be stocked with gallon jugs and quart-size bottles. He swears they'd dump them out after testing for chemicals. Now, it's a storage space filled with boxes. Graham's boss back then, Bob Powell, still lives in Wilkesboro with his wife, Betty. Powell has a lot of stories about the revenuers. How often were you guys catching people?

BOB POWELL: About every 10 minutes.

BETTY POWELL: The lawyers loved them.

TOMSIC: But priorities changed, and the basement office closed in the '80s. The ATF left town to focus on violent crime in big cities, and locals say it's been a long time since the court was as busy. The other five courts closing in the South are also well past their glory years. They're all scheduled to shut down within a year or two. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONSHINE")

RICE, RICE, HILLMAN & PEDERSEN: (Singing) Gonna make us some moonshine. They caught granddaddy who's pounding wine, gonna make it by the grapevine, gets its soul in the...

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.