Mark Pegram “Moonshine in Piedmont North Carolina”
Some Lovely Creative Non-Fiction. Enjoy …
Moonshine Piedmont North Carolina
Nick Pegram, Nicholas Talley Pegram, my grandfather was born in the Piedmont of North Carolina 1864 during the height of the Civil War. He was six generations from his ancestor, George Pegram, who came to America to Jamestown in the mid 1600’s.
Nick was called Stuttering Nick to separate his identity from another Nick Pegram who lived in Kernersville, Drinking Nick. Drinking Nick and his sons would get liquored-up, ride their horses onto the platform, and shot up the train on Saturday nights when it passed by the Bass Café.
Tobacco and alcohol financed America so that it could become the bright and shiny city on the hill. In 1900, twenty percent of tax collections came from tobacco and sixty percent from alcohol excise tax.1 Of course this was before the constitution was changed to allow the individual to be taxed. The addictions of revenue lead to the addiction of alcohol by the government as a means to drive the economic engine. The government encouraged the manufacture of liquor as it filled the need of the politicians to become drunk with power.
It was the same case for Nick and his family as well. Everyone wanted to make shine. It was an easy way to make money and not let the excess corn, wheat, oats, pumpkins, or anything else that would ferment go to waste. After all, wasn’t this the American way as George Washington financed the Revolutionary War with his distillery? Also it soothed the mind and lubricated the aches from hard work and emotional turmoil. I am not so sure you could go as far as to say that it was a happy time, but a time non-the-less.
Of course the government did not want anyone to become too rich from an easy source of income. The control of power was always in the hands of government and greedy distillery owners who greased the palms of the politicians. To accomplish this feat, the government limited the amount of alcohol that could be made in one year by an individual through legislation. In 1890 Hiram and Sterling purchased over 200 tons of special paper for the government and a foot long Special Tax stamp was issued to still owners and tobacco dealers.¬2
To overcome the limit as to the amount of alcohol that could be made from a private still, the Pegram brothers became very inventive. At the beginning of the year, Nick would make as much liquor that was allowed under his Special Tax stamp. He would then trade the still for six acres of land to his brother John. John would then make as much liquor as his Special Stamp would allow. It would then be the beginning of the following year and John would buy a Special Stamp for that year and make as much liquor as was allowed. He would then trade the still back to his brother Nick and the cycle continued for years.
The brothers became so successful that they hired a hand to run the operation of the still. They built a small house for the hired hand just down the hill from the Pegram ancestral home that was built about 1780. It was below the spring and the still operated from the fresh sweet water. It was especially tasty because of the rich source of magnesium and fluoride in the spring.
Moon Shines over the Piedmont – 1903
The hired hand was named Nugent, a wiry-determined man. Nugent’s wife was very pretty. Not only was she lovely and beautiful, she was so enchanting that John could just not keep his eyes off her or his hands either for that matter. Word had got around the neighborhood that John was ditilin’ with Nugent’s wife. To say that Nugent was upset is like saying a blizzard is a mild spring snow shower.
There was a regular poker game played on the premises not far from the still. This of course was to leverage the appetite for the alcohol that the Pegram brothers produced. It was a slick sales and marketing scheme. What better way to escape from one’s trouble than an evening lubricated with fine moonshine and the hope of winning a big pot in a game of five card stud. Gentlemen of the neighborhood would show up on a regular basis to take in the glee.
On a particularly warm spring Saturday evening, the sap was running high into the trees and the bulls sniffed with snorts the sweet juices of life. As the juices flowed, an emotional stirring inspired Nugent to tell John to back away from his wife. After all, it was through Nugent’s talent and labor at running the still that allowed the Pegram brothers to be so successful at making shine. It was just dastardly that John was even messin’ with Nugent’s wife.
The shine glittered in the moonlight and the fire reflections sparkled on the gold pieces in the large poker pot. Excitement at winning such a large pot was more than could be handled by an alcohol enlightened ego. Bluffing and lying, the skills of poker, were in extraordinary display. If a bull could wear his gonads on his horns, then you would understand the intensity of this night.
John, with a curl of the lip, sneered at Nugent’s last raise. Was it a bluff or the real thing? This was all that Nugent needed to lash out at John over suspected cheating. A cheat is a cheat both at poker and women. As the heat climbed, the other players backed away and tried to find shields from the flame in any available objects.
Nugent flared out, “You d**n lying and cheating S*B, you have cheated once too much.” “You are the scum of the earth.” BANG!
Before anyone could react, Nugent had gone to his pocket and produced a revolver that he plunged into John’s chest. With some mild gurgling, John inhaled his last breath and past as the others scattered. It is hard to believe today, but the sheriff did not even come out to investigate because everyone knew that John was a cheat.
Shine on Moonshine – Late 1940’s
The Bethel community was alarmed by the amount of violence that emanated from the alcohol produced at Nick’s still. The fact that Nick’s brother had been killed did not ease the mind of the women at the local Methodist Women’s circle either. That other Nick, Drinking Nick Pegram and his boys, got their shine from Stuttering Nick. Surely the shine was the only reason he and his boys shot up the train in Kernersville on Saturday nights. Alcohol was evil, evil, evil.
When it came time for the amendment to initiate prohibition, there was not a single person in the neighborhood that would admit he was not for the end of legal liquor. It was the destruction of community. After all, if Jesus could turn water into wine, it should be within the capacity of government to turn shine into water. Ah, the hypocrisy of man to think he can overcome evil in an act of rules. Evil is in the lie.
Nick’s youngest son, Troy was born in 1905 or two years after his uncle John had been shot in the poker game for cheating. Troy with his three brothers had spent his early twenties in chasing a living by setting stone and tile on the large houses of tobacco barons and wealthy distillery owners like the Reynolds and Vanderbilt’s. As now, the construction industry for large buildings is a hard way of life; always traveling and living somewhere else.
Troy took a likin’ to a very pretty girl in the neighborhood named Edna. She was very fetching and had a brilliant mind as well as a vivid body. Troy had spent his time with plenty of women while on the road in the construction industry. He wanted to settle down and rear a family. Not only that, he understood that religion, especially the belief in Jesus, was not the only opiate of the masses. Belief in a greater power and how we perceive life is the very fundamental nature of being. Memories and thoughts, without emotional disturbance of the essence, is wisdom. Edna was of the same bent. Not only that, she truly understood the nature of energy flow, a very modern and ancient concept.
They both had seen and felt the blight of too much alcohol. Troy with the shooting of his uncle and Edna with the death of her brother at the tender age of seventeen from an alcohol inspired wreck, believed no alcohol was best. Married in 1927, they had lived the early part of their life with prohibition and felt it was the right thing. With no understanding of economics, they did not understand how the ban on liquor had helped to bring on the Great Depression.
Nick did understand how the loss of revenue affected him and his family. The still was moved into the deep surroundings of Rocky Branch. The land plunged down more than one hundred feet into a steep sided gorge. What a great place to hide a still from the government. Nick lived very comfortably through the depression. He even purchase each of his sons a Model T Ford in the late twenties as the economy boomed before the fall.
Now Troy had the desire to preach the Lord’s word as he felt this is the duty of all Christians. He became a lay minister in the Methodist church. He was good enough to have his own two-church-charge in the later part of his life. Edna knew that it was not so much his skill as the lack of ministers in the Methodist district. However, she faithfully supported him in this effort of reaching out in faith.
Troy felt so strong about the evil of alcohol that he decided to preach about how the evil of alcohol had destroy the peace and tranquility of the Bethel community. He thought it cruel of the moonshiners to make liquor which ultimately resulted in so much pain. Of course, he most likely did not realize the extent to which his own life had been made through the production of alcohol. Having been born of a moonshiner, it was a hard sermon to preach, but he felt a worthy job. Who knows how Nick felt about the sermon, but then Nick was long dead by this time.
The shiners took exception to the hard line that was laid down by Troy. Surely he did not believe that all men would go to hell just because they were trying to make a good living through shine. It was such a natural thing to not let their excess crops go to waste. It also provided much glee to the users. How could anyone deny such synergism of life, liquor, economics, and a good time!
“You bad boys are going to hell!” Troy drummed on.
It was early fall. The last of the green hay had been put up into the hay loft of Troy’s large barn. It was large enough that it had ten stables, enough room to bring the cows, horses, and mules into the barn. The family went to bed early on that cool fall evening. They were awakened by the shouts of one of their children who had been awakened by a bright glow. IT IS THE END OF THE WORLD! – No, wait, the barn is on fire.
A mad rush was made toward the barn in an effort to save as many of the animals as possible. Some were saved, some were not. It was a sad time in the Troy and Edna household. What would they do with such a great loss of wealth as the family barn? How would they keep their animals warm through the winter and store enough hay to feed them. Milk and eggs collected and sold through the use of the barn was also a prime source for Edna to clothe her family.
Later that week, Troy was pulled aside by the local sheriff. The sheriff had information on one of the shiners that was bragging at the local store. A claim that he had burned the barn down because of the nasty sermon that had been delivered by the right-reverend Troy. Troy was a forgiving man. He believed in total forgiveness. He repeated the words of Hebrews often, “There is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” He would then repeat the Good News – Jesus has shed all the blood that is necessary. Troy refused to file charges against the braggart. Green hay has always been known to be easily auto-combustible.
I am sure that Troy would have liked the quote of modern author Anne Lamott, “Not forgiving is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die.” Mash ferments and the shine flows, and nobody but nobody knows where it goes. The neighborhood came together in unity and rebuilt Troy and Edna’s barn.
Note: The second largest still every busted in North Carolina was busted just one mile from Nick’s house in 1970. It was the result of the consolidation of the shine industry after the building of Belew’s Creek Lake by Duke Power. The building of the lake had destroyed much of the prime hollows for hiding stills. This area was called Little Egypt because of the belief that shiners lived the hedonistic life of the Egyptians. When the still was busted, there were three- two- thousand gallons tanks of finished shine destroyed.