Although not exactly a respectable career, bootlegging was often a necessary one. It was an integral if not essential part of old Appalachia, where jobs were scarce and money even scarcer. A family could see a much greater return on their investment from a jar of corn liquor as opposed to a sack of grain.
Like many traditional housewives, bootlegging spouses would often be found toting lunch or dinner to their men who were out tending the stills when farming and other income producing options didn’t pan out. It was just a routine part of life.
Every now and then, a woman may take on the added responsibility of still tending during wartime or when her husband did a prison stint, but the job usually reverted back to the men upon their return.
However, there are those women of history who took a more active part in the moonshine industry. Their stories are not as widely known, but are at least as equally as interesting.
Catchable but not fetchable
Some estimate Mahala “Haley” Mullins (1824 – 1898) topped the scales at 400 lbs. Others say it was closer to 600. One thing everyone agrees on is that it wasn’t just her weight that made Mullins larger than life, it was her chosen profession. This woman of legendary proportions sold moonshine from a little cabin on Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tenn.
Mullins was mother to 20 children, at least one of which was a special needs child listed as “idiotic” on the census records. She began bearing children to husband, John Mullins, at the age of 16. The family was of a much-maligned ethnic group known as melungeons, whose murky origins made them an easy target of racial profiling. Dubbed a “tri-racial isolate,” theories abound as to their beginnings. It is generally believed melungeons are mixture of Native Americans, African American slaves and white Europeans, but older members claimed to be “Portugee” in reference to Portuguese sailors who may have visited or been shipwrecked and made their way inland.
Melungeons lived mostly in the mountainous areas of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and western Virginia and were prevalent in Newman’s Ridge. It was hard enough to make a living in the rocky soil of northeast Tennessee, but it was much harder when you were the object of loathing and fear simply because of your heritage.
It wouldn’t have been all that hard to conceal a moonshine still in the rugged mountain wilderness surrounding the Mullins’ home, but it was no secret how this monumental matriarch supplemented the family’s income. With the help of her children, Mullins kept an ample supply of apple and peach brandy, some of which she stored in a barrel beside her bed. She would then ladle out portions to the surprisingly numerous visitors she had who were hearty enough to make the climb to her cabin.
Mullins was no stranger to law enforcement, but her great girth proved an impediment to those who would arrest her. One ambitious young deputy decided he was going to put an end to her illegal activities. He later lamented to his superior, “She’s catchable, but not fetchable.” Not only would it have proved a great challenge just to get her out of the house – she was rumored to be too big to pass through the doorways – there would have been no way to successfully get her down the mountainside without injury. The terrain was simply too rugged.
Although 20 pregnancies could certainly be a factor in Mullins’ size, she is also said to have suffered from elephantitis or Lymphatic Filariasis, a disease caused by parasitic roundworms. The worms are passed into the bloodstream of humans from repeated mosquito bites, which would certainly be plentiful in Newman’s Ridge. The disease affects the lymphatic system and causes parts of the body to swell. There would have been no treatment for the disease in Mullins’ time.
Despite her size, Mullins lived to be 74-years-old, but in death, she presented yet another dilemma. Just how do you go about burying a body that can’t be taken through a doorway?
Eventually, Mullins was removed by a breech made in the cabin wall in the area near a chimney. Some say she was buried in a piano box, others claim sides were built on her bed and she was buried in it. The bed theory makes more sense as that is where she would have been when she passed away and where she spent many years once she reached her unwieldy size. However Mullins was laid to rest, she will always remain one of Hancock County’s biggest stories.
Every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night, Mrs. Hudiburg sat front and center in a row of chairs set up in the modest little parlor of the home she shared with her husband in Bearden, Tenn. She was a dutiful wife listening attentively as her husband preached from the Good Book. She bowed her head devoutly as he prayed for guidance for these poor folks headed for hellfire and damnation if they did not repent of their wicked ways.
It is recorded that during at least one of these gatherings of neighbors and citizens that a group of travelers called at the Hudiburg’s gate. The devoted wife quietly slipped from her seat amidst the small group of worshipers and made her way out into the yard. There stood a group of men looking to buy a jar or two of whiskey.
In 1899, a local preacher, John B. Creswell, interviewed a 76-year-old Bearden resident, W. L. Kennedy, in an effort to preserve the history of the place. The old man recalled the Hudiburg family saying, “He [Hudiburg] was not a distiller of the fruits of the land, but a dispenser of the fermented liquids therein.”
It seems that in addition to supporting her husband’s ministry, another of the devoted Mrs. Hudiburg’s duties was to sell whiskey. It apparently wasn’t at all unusual for Mrs. Hudiburg to “kindly wait upon the customers in dispensing to them the fermented liquids.”
Although the good Reverend Hudiburg was described as being an “interpreter and expounder of the sacred oracles of truth,” otherwise known as a Baptist preacher, he and his wife supplied their neighbors another escape from the harsh realities of life. This escape just happened to be in a potable form.
Bearden, which is now a suburb of Knoxville, was at the time of the Hudiburg’s residency just a rural area with sparsely scattered homes completely unrecognizable from the metropolis of today. Kennedy lamented in his reminiscences that the first business to appear in this venerable community was that of a distillery and although Mrs. Hudiburg’s first name has since been lost to history, her role in ministering to the residents has been recorded in “A Brief Historical Sketch of the Village of Bearden.”
Rock and a Hard Place
As a navy nurse, Ella Costner (1894 - 1982) well understood the burdens suffered by those who were affected by the atrocities of WWI. Breadwinners were lost. Homes were mortgaged. Families were starving. For many, there was only one way out of the ceaseless poverty – moonshine.
Costner was born in Cocke County, Tenn., near Crying Creek in what is now the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Her family was typical of most Appalachian families of the time – dirt poor with only the most rudimentary of education. Costner herself managed to break away and traveled to Texas were she went to nursing school. She eventually joined the navy. She traveled to Panama during the building of the canal where she worked with malaria sufferers. She then tended to WWI soldiers before returning to her Appalachian home to care for family and friends.
As a nurse, Costner struggled to make ends meet in her little mountain home, so she started to take in boarders to ease her financial woes. Even that wasn’t enough, so the next step was to stock her pantry with jars of corn liquor supplied by her brothers. Although selling moonshine without paying taxes was against the law, Prohibition took it one step further by making just the possession of whiskey itself illegal.
In her book “Song of Life in the Smokies,” Costner wrote that when Prohibition was enacted “the stage was set for the greatest experiment in crime the country had ever known.” She had now become a full-fledged criminal.
Over the years, Costner had many narrow escapes with revenuers showing up on her doorstep and raiding her home. Thanks to her status as a nurse, she was often spared and never had charges brought against her. During one incident, she rushed into the back yard with a load of moonshine jars and began throwing them over the fence into the woods so they would no longer be on her property. She was startled to hear laughter and turned to find a revenue agent standing behind her.
“We’re not after you, Miss Ella,” he said. Then he turned and walked away. He never did tell her who they were looking for.
Costner went on to become poet laureate of the Smokies in the 1970s. She wrote both poetry and prose chronicling her life and the lives of those around her. Moonshine was a common thread in many of the stories. She tells these stories without apology and explains that for many, selling whiskey was the only way to survive especially during Prohibition and the Great Depression. One particularly sad tale was of a father who was unable to buy food for his starving children because “the poor man’s [whiskey] barrels had just been cut down a few days before.”
From her home in Cocke County, deep in the Great Smoky Mountains she wrote, “Whiskey, moonshine whiskey even, was twenty dollars a gallon. [We] did the one thing at hand that offered remuneration [we] became moonshiners. Our home was mortgaged and there seemed to be no way to make an honest dollar.”
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Although prohibition was repealed on a federal level by the 21st Amendment in 1933, it wasn’t repealed in Knoxville until 1961. In addition, for years after that, towns and counties across Tennessee remained dry according to their own local laws. (Lynchburg, Moore County, Tenn., where Jack Daniel’s whiskey is made is still a dry county.) That didn’t stop Tennesseans from drinking and moonshining continued to be a profitable business for quite some time.
In 1971, Sandy Clark didn’t have a lot of options. The 18-year-old soon-to-be divorced mother of an infant was desperate for money. Her husband was a drunk and she needed to find a way to support herself and her baby. So when her uncle, a local bar owner, called with a lucrative proposition, Clark was in no position to turn it down.
Some acquaintances of his needed an inconspicuous driver to transport moonshine from west Knoxville to Rockwood, Tenn. All she had to do was wait in a little shack near a barn on Kingston Pike in west Knox County in the Concord area, which is now known as Farragut.
“It looked like an outhouse,” Clark said, “but it wasn’t. I would sit in there until a porch light came on. Then I knew things were ready.”
In the garage, Clark found a 1970 Dodge Charger that had been fitted with a fake gas tank. In the driver’s seat, there was an envelope with $200 in cash. She would strap her daughter into the front passenger seat and head west down Hwy 11/70.
“That was a nice car, orange with white interior,” said Clark.
At the other end of the line, Clark went through the same routine. Park the car in a garage, wait in a little shack until the light came on, and then return the car to Knox County.
“I never did know who I was driving for,” said Clark, “I didn’t want to know, that was part of the deal.”
Things went smoothly for about six months before her luck ran out. On the way into Rockwood one night, she found herself being followed by a police officer. The car had been equipped with a “panic button.” Sandy pushed it and dropped the load of moonshine on the road behind her.
The cop pulled her over and made his way to the window.
“Did you lose something out of the back of your car?” he asked.
“No,” the frightened young woman answered.
“It looks like maybe you have a busted water hose or something,” he continued.
“No, I don’t think so,” she answered.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked.
“Um, my baby’s sick,” Clark shot back, “I’m taking her to my grandmother’s house to see if she can help me.”
The lie got her off the hook as the cop recognized Clark and knew her grandmother was a retired nurse. He let her off with a warning to slow things down.
As soon as she could, Sandy called her uncle and told him what had happened. She told him she had to drop the load of moonshine and she didn’t want to be involved anymore.
Nevertheless, whenever she tells that story, there is always a twinkle in her eye when she thinks about driving that orange 1970 Dodge Charger with the white interior.