27 August 2011

Matt Bondurant. The Wettest County in the World. New York: Scribner, 2008.

 photo from UNC Libraries

These days, the fact that Franklin County, Virginia, was the “Moonshine Capital of the World” in the 1930s is more of a fun trivia tidbit than something at which to take pause. That's right, Southside's very own Franklin County - not Chicago or New York City - was the mecca for liquor during Prohibition. 

Locals see it as a significant part of our proud history. One can take the Franklin County Historical Society’s Moonshine Express Tour every April, buy knickknacks that tout this designation, and sing along to tunes that shout out specifically to Franklin County’s moonshine enterprise (my favorite: Jean Shepard’s Franklin County Moonshine). The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College offers an extensive history of the trade in its online exhibit Moonshine – Blue Ridge Style: The History and Culture of Untaxed Liquor in the Mountains of Virginia. A simple Google search will yield results that point to hobbyists’ interest in this topic as well (try here or here), and every so often, larger media venues will also take an interest in it (see the History Channel’s Hillbilly and Rumrunners, Moonshiners, & Bootleggers, National Geographic’s Moonshine documentaries, and this “vintage” news story). Nearby Climax, Virginia, even held an annual Moonshiners Jamboree for a time.

For all of the fun that people get out of the legacy these days, it is easy to forget that real people were involved in the illegal (probably what makes it so fun today) activities surrounding moonshine. The truth is, circumstances of the time forced many people into the dangerous trade. The Depression had disastrous effects on the economy, and a drought in the early 1930s did nothing to help the situation. Even though the Great War and the Spanish Flu occurred more than a decade earlier, families still felt the ramifications of those major events. For some people, their only chance of survival was to produce White Lightning.

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In Matt Bondurant's novel, there are no good guys. Although we follow the Bondurant Boys (the youngest of whom, Jack, was the author's grandfather), the truth is, they are criminals - just like the "law enforcement officials" who pursue them. Still, readers root for the moonshiners who simply wish to sustain their business without paying an illegitimate tax to Carter Lee, the Commonwealth's Attorney, or to Franklin County's sheriff and deputies.

The Bondurant Boys are three such men who found themselves in the trade:
  • Howard, the eldest son, is something of a troubled soul. A World War I veteran, he drinks the brothers' product heavily and neglects his wife and small child. Still, he works hard, trying to provide for his family and support his brother.
  • Forrest, the middle brother, runs the Blackwater Station, a filling station in Burnt Chimney. An attack in which he was left for dead with a deep cut running from ear to ear and supposedly walked twelve miles in the deep snow has become Franklin County folklore. Fellow moonshiners look up to him and follow his lead, especially in their dealings with the law.
  • Jack is the youngest and most susceptible to his brothers' influence. He becomes enthralled by the riches that moonshining brings him, delighting in walking through downtown Rocky Mount in a handsome suit and impressing his sweetheart, Bertha Minnix.
When the Bondurant Boys and their fellow bootlegging friends decline the offer of expensive protection by law enforcement officials to keep from being charged for moonshining, they add fuel to the tension that already exists. As the clash between the 'shiners and the police deepens, greater risks are taken to produce the liquor and to get it out of the county. Deputies revel in breaking up stills throughout the mountainous community and do not seemed to be too concerned when known moonshiners are found dead.

The area has received national attention, with the writer Sherwood Anderson making trips to Rocky Mount (from Ripshin, his home in Marion) to get a story about Willie May Sharpe, the famous female bootlegger, for Liberty magazine. This is a difficult task for Anderson as few people in a small town trust an outsider, especially if they are engaged in illicit activities. Even without the assistance of locals, Anderson observes the activities occurring throughout the county, even witnessing Sharpe late one night. It is he who deeds Franklin County the “wettest section in the U.S.A.”

Late one night just before Christmas in 1930, as the brothers attempt to get a large load to Roanoke, the police apprehend them. This instigates a disastrous battle in which gunfire is exchanged and the Bondurant Boys are injured. Moonshining in Franklin - and the Bondurant family - is forever changed.

Have you read The Wettest County in the World? Please share your opinion about the novel and this summary.

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Interested in learning more about the history of moonshine in Franklin County? 

Try T. Keister Greer's extensive collection, The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935, (2002). 

The book is over 900 pages and probably requires an Interlibrary Loan service to get it, but it offers court proceedings, photographs, and an account of the great moonshine conspiracy trail of 1935 (which includes real-life characters from The Wettest County in the World).


Want to see The Wettest County in the World on the big screen? The film adaptation of Bondurant's book is due in 2012!

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