The temporary exhibit opens today and runs through December at the Cherokee County History Museum and Visitors Center. The exhibit will feature photographs, documents, firsthand accounts and artifacts from the Historical Society’s collection.
Included in the exhibit are copper stills, photographs of distillery raids by law enforcement officials, federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms daily reports from local agent Warren Cagle, and videos including an oral history with Cagle and of a liquor still in operation.
The museum is located in Suite 140 of the historic marble courthouse at 100 North St. in Canton and is free and open to the public. The operating hours are Wednesdays to Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
One of the stills featured was donated to the Society by former Sheriff Newt Adams, who died earlier this year, and was confiscated in a raid while he was in office.
“We had hoped to do this exhibit while Newt Adams was alive,” said Megan Griffin, archivist for the Historical Society.
“Moonshine is a part of our cultural background and the making of it was passed down from generation to generation,” Griffin said about why the Historical Society decided on the topic for a temporary exhibit.
Cherokee Historical Society Executive Director Stefanie Joyner agreed.
“This is something you don’t see anymore,” Joyner said. “That is what history exhibits are about — teaching people what life was about.”
Federal Agent Duff Floyd, who participated in many Cherokee County moonshine raids, noted that there were three legal distilleries in the area — Owl Hollow in Hickory Flat, McAfee’s in the 19th Section, and Chamblee at Hickory Log Creek.
In 1968, the Atlanta Constitution reported that there were around 750 illicit stills in Georgia operating at a mash capacity of more than 750,000 gallons.
At that time moonshining represented a loss to the government of $52 million in federal tax and $19 million in state tax and Georgia was the leading producer of moonshine in the United States.
One of the state’s most notorious moonshiners, known as the Moonshine King, had his empire in Cherokee County. John Henry Hardin originally was the owner of the state’s largest farms, near the Etowah River in Sutallee.
Hardin is believed to have operated as many as 20 stills and had around 75 men working the stills. The whiskey, once it was produced, was placed in large barrels and picked up at Hardin’s barn by haulers headed to Rome and Atlanta.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, Hardin continued to operate his distillery and for many in that area it was the only way to make a living. However, his son was arrested in 1932 and later killed himself and his wife and small children. The Moonshine King himself was arrested several times, and his death ended an era in Cherokee County moonshine production.
Throughout the cultural region known as Appalachia moonshine was a cottage industry for 200 years, with families who had immigrated from Ireland and Scotland using their personal recipes to make whiskey and brandy out of apples and corn, among other ingredients.
Moonshine began to be a prominent part of American life with the onset of the Civil War as the federal government again imposed excise taxes on whiskey and tobacco in an effort to finance the Civil War, according to information from the Historical Society.
After the war, the taxes were left in place. The whiskey tax was raised to $1.10 per gallon in 1894 — a tax considered stiffer than most ’shine. The outcome of the tax was a thriving market in untaxed liquor as more and more distillers decided the only way they could make a profit was to sell their drink illegally.
The government estimated at the time that between 5 million and 10 million gallons of illegal liquor were produced and sold annually in the years just before the 20th century started.
Original arrests had been made by “feds” or “revenuers,” but during Prohibition, a period from 1920 to 1933 when the U.S. government banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol, much of the enforcement was left up to the local sheriffs.
This put lawmen in a peculiar position since many of the moonshiners they were supposed to arrest were people they had known most of their lives and knew that making moonshine was the only means these individuals had of feeding their families.
By the 1970s, economic conditions improved in north Georgia and many moonshiners left the business for more legal ways to earn money.
The history of moonshine is still celebrated at a few places, such as the Moonshine Festival in Dawsonville during October.