Long before many settlers in the Appalachian Mountains constructed stills and began the business of moonshining, those living in the Albemarle Sound region were making liquor.
The desolate swampland in northeastern North Carolina was ideal for concealing stills, a business that actually began shortly after Europeans began moving to the new land. Very few laws existed as they originally operated under a proprietary government. In fact, Regional Museums Director Don Pendergraft noted liquor was produced in the region before it formally became a British colony in the early 1700s.
The climate was perfect for growing corn, and the fertile land easily produced three crops annually. At that time, one could obtain a license from the colonial governor to manufacture liquor on his property. However, there were those who didn’t possess a desire to be a part of the royal government. They were an “outlaw society”, a melting pot of indentured servants, escaped formerly enslaved people, Native Americans, and people relocating from Virginia.
Bootleggers knew that in North Carolina they could escape the strict laws and taxes that a rural governor would have imposed on them by living in a proprietary area. By the 1920s, the region was known for its massive timber industry, but by the time the Great Depression arrived the trees were gone and so were the jobs it provided. Out of work and out of money, many people turned to moonshine to earn a living, often relying on the remaining infrastructure (rail, roads) left by the timber industry. With the Albemarle Sound and the Outer Banks to the east and the Great Dismal Swamp to the west, those choosing to manufacture whiskey illegally possessed natural defenses against law enforcement.
The numerous rivers emptying into the Albemarle Sound provided the freshwater needed to manufacture the moonshine as well as an easy way to transport the finished product to the state’s small ports. The rivers harbored remote, inaccessible areas; places only known by the locals where a bootlegger could disappear with a shipment. With the Albemarle Sound part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, ships could easily place the moonshine in their hulls for transportation to the coastal towns. Upon reaching its coastal destination, it would be transferred to another ship or a truck and sent northward to Virginia’s metropolitan areas, such as Norfolk. Bootleggers had Sump Pumps in the bottom of the boats to pump water out of the bottoms of the boats when they took on water, so they could pump the stuff (illegal liquor) right back into smaller containers.
Those purchasing a large quantity of moonshine received it in jimmy john bottles, which could carry five gallons. People acquiring it for their personal use could purchase it in quart jars. Large illegal whiskey-producing operations developed in Camden and Pasquotank counties as well as at Manns Harbor in Dare County. Pendergraft noted that some of the operations were so large that whistles were blown for those who manufactured the liquor to report to work.
Just like a bootlegger’s car sat low when it was loaded with moonshine, the same applied to a boat regarding its position in the water. However, it wasn’t that anomaly that led revenuers to the moonshiners. Instead, it was their store purchases. The federal agents kept an eye on those who bought large amounts of sugar and chicken feed. Acquiring a huge amount of chicken feed when a person didn’t own numerous chickens raised a red flag for the revenuers.
There were legendary moonshiners in both the Appalachian Mountains and the Albemarle Sound region. One of those was Elizabeth City resident Alvin Sawyer, who was a World War II veteran and a master welder in the Norfolk, Va., Shipyard. He dug a cellar and made whiskey under his house since it’s possible to dig five feet down in the Albemarle Sound region and not hit the water. Sawyer also camouflaged his whiskey operation in a building disguised as an outhouse. Hogs or other foul-smelling animals were located near it to conceal the odor.
During Prohibition, Elizabeth City was the launching point for federal raids in the Albemarle Region. For large-scale operations, agents assembled in the city, having arrived by train from Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia, and North Carolina.
Although most still sites in nearby counties could be reached easily by automobile and then on foot, East Lake on the Dare County mainland was accessible only by boat.
By 1923, it was apparent that East Lake shipped large quantities of quality moonshine to Norfolk, Baltimore, and other northern cities, and was considered by some to be the premium liquor distilled in Northeastern North Carolina.
After 1925, Federal agents, also known as “the Dry Squad,” began raiding the Dare County mainland more regularly to stop the flow of liquor at the source. The Coast Guard supply boat, the AB-21, stationed at Elizabeth City, under the command of Captain C. O. Miller, was used by federal agents as transport to East Lake, and nearby South Lake, and Buffalo City in the search for illegal moonshine stills, that lasted several days. In two peak years of raids there in 1926 and ’27, as many as a dozen federal agents raided and destroyed still sites in the swamp. The forays briefly interrupted the flow of liquor, as few were arrested. Stills were quickly rebuilt and moonshining resumed. Some thought that lookouts along the Elizabeth City waterfront, sped away in fast boats to sound the alarm to East Lake moonshiners ahead of the agents’ arrival.
Pictured here are federal agents aboard the AB-21 after a raid at East Lake in 1926. Agent A. G. McDuffie, centered in the lighter-colored suit and round glasses, is posed with his men around some large copper worms taken from the stills they had destroyed on that distant shore. At least an inch and a half in diameter, these worms indicate the volume of moonshine produced in the swamps of Dare County.
Some moonshiners produced illicit liquor in small stills at a trickle. But East Lake moonshine was produced on an industrial scale. Some of the curious onlookers behind the agents, no doubt groaned as the confiscated liquor in five-gallon bottles was poured over the side of the vessel into the Pasquotank River. In the latter half of the 1920s, Federal Agent J. J. London, from Virginia, led other agents as they continued to enforce the Volstead Act from the Great Dismal Swamp to the Alligator River.
As highways improved, fast cars were used to bootleg some moonshine to Norfolk along George Washington Highway, and in Currituck County from Powells Point to Coinjock, and then to Norfolk.
For more information on moonshining in northeast North Carolina’s coastal communities, visit the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.
- Contributed by Deb Williams and Chris and Bill Barber