January 22, 2012

MY RECENT STORY ABOUT FENTRESS, the one about the general store and post office, prompted an interesting response.

Joe Bell of Great Bridge passed along a story that his late father, Joseph S. Bell IV, told him. After returning home from World War II, Mr. Bell worked as a salesman for the family business.

“He said there was a customer in Great Bridge– I think it was at the intersection of Battlefield and Mt. Pleasant– who had a standing order for the maximum amount of sugar they could purchase without having to report it to the government (seems like it was 300 pounds.).

“As I remember, the proprietor had a brother who had a store going south on Battlefield, I think still in Virginia. Everyone knew all of this sugar wasn’t going for cookies!”

Oh my goodness! Could it be that our fast-growing suburban cities were once, back when they were mostly woods and farm fields, hotbeds of moonshine?

You won’t find it in official histories of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Isle of Wight – you name it, just about every rural area of what used to be called Tidewater – had thriving illegal whiskey operations during the bad-old – some might have called them good-old – days when these scrappy entrepreneurs made whiskey while the moon shone.

It was, as one writer put it, a “bootleggers paradise.”

Or, as a former Alcohol Beverage Control agent describes the 1940s, “It was the wild west.” One of the first Norfolk County police officers killed in the line of duty was shot by a bootlegger.

All of this is not so shocking when you consider how hard the rural South was hit by the Depression. Combine this with a defiant, independent spirit, an abundant supply of corn and sugar and many secluded streams, plus the enormous profits that were possible – and you have just the right ingredients for a thriving industry.
The process, as far as I can tell, involved mixing a“mash” of corn meal and hot water with sugar and yeast, then letting it ferment until it began to bubble furiously, then condense into a potent colorless liquid.

A generation of agents tromped through and camped out in the woods to find and catch moonshiners.

Finally, tough enforcement, the high price of sugar and the availability of cheap store-bought liquor just about killed the home-grown industry.

“As hard as it may be for old-timers to comprehend, not one local law enforcement agent, bootlegger, or free-lance distiller, knows of an operating still in the Chesapeake-Virginia Beach-Suffolk area, Pilot reporter Bob Geske wrote in 1977.

“Gone is a Tidewater industry once considered as permanent as agriculture, and much more lucrative.”“ ‘ Hell, you can’t make a dollar a gallon anymore, and with the sentences as stiff as they are, I just won’t mess with it anymore,’ said a 60-year-old bootlegger who served the Homemont area of rural Chesapeake for 35 years.”

A few days ago, I spoke with Tommy Hart, who joined the Norfolk County Police Department in 1963 just as the changeover to Chesapeake City was occurring. He spent a 22-year career as an ABC officer.

He didn’t keep records on how many moonshiners he caught, but only one, he says, ever outran him. They’d spend time in jail, go right back into business and get arrested again. Describing one such repeat offender, Hart said, “I felt bad. That’s all he knew how to do.”

But there are no hard feelings, “To this day, he sends me a pecan pie every Christmas.”

And it isn’t laced with moonshine.

Photo: Undated: former Norfolk County police officer Wilmer “Snooky” Jones after uncovering a 5-gallon jug of illegal white lightning. Courtesy of Raymond L. Harper.