A look into the history of Franklin County, “The Moonshine Capital of the World”

Roanoke Valley News

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — Throughout the 1900’s, moonshining in Franklin County was a booming business. Today, the county’s history and heritage merits national attention.

“If you go somewhere else and mention, ‘I’m living in Franklin County,’ more than likely ‘Franklin County? That’s Moonshine,'” said David Rotenizer, Director of Tourism for Franklin County Office of Economic Development.

Rotenizer uses the history of moonshine to promote the county. It’s only a small part of county history, he says, but he wants to make sure it’s a good aspect.

“We want to have more of a family approach to it,” the tourism Director said. “That brings out, I think, a lot of community pride, especially the folks that have been here a long time.”

“We’re kind of dubbed the moonshine capital of the world,” said Brian Argabright, Assistant General Manager of Franklin County Distilleries.

Argabright runs one of the legal operations in the county, Franklin County Distilleries in the town of Boones Mill.

But why Franklin County? What is it about the county that allowed decades of moonshining to go on?

If there’s one person with an opinion you can trust on moonshining, it’s a member of the hit Discovery Channel show “Moonshiners.”

Steven Ray Tickle, better known as simply ‘Tickle,’ is one of those shiners and happens to live in neighboring Pittsylvania County.

“Without good water you have nothing,” Tickle said. “And so with the combination of the submarine pot, the access to good coverage and places to make it and the access to the water, it was just really like a marriage made in heaven.”

“We are a county of two lakes, four rivers, from the crest of the Blue Ridge to the Virginia Piedmont and the foothills in between, and 10,000 springs,” Rotenizer specified. “That’s a perfect setting. It’s the arena for all this to take place.”

The perfect setting, however, needed the perfect people to capitalize on the location, and according to the Director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, Beth Worley, it was the Scots Irish settlers who arrived in Franklin County in the late 1800’s

“…and with that, that tradition of bringing and making their own liquor,” said Worley. “That’s just tradition.”

“The area was mostly all farms,” Argabright added. “People were growing their own food, so you have a lot of corn. If you don’t want it to go bad, and there’s a need for a little bit of money, you turn that corn into a little bit of liquid corn.”

Outside the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum, Va.

The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum is home of the largest collection of moonshine memorabilia in the country, with stills of all shapes and sizes, each designed for making some of the best “shine” in the country.

Worley goes onto explain that when prohibition hit in the twenties, the distillers who were already making their own liquor took production to an industrial-sized scale.

“The folks here made over six million gallons of whiskey,” Worley said. “That’s in the 1930’s. The people here made $10 million on whiskey in the 1930’s. In today’s money, currency, that would be $120 million.”

Some may think the difference between illegal and legal moonshine is how the liquor is stilled and prepared, but it actually has nothing to do with the liquor.

“It comes down to licensing, taxes, fees, money,” Argabright said with a chuckle.

Argabright certainly knows the fees that come with legally making moonshine in the U.S.

There’s also a limit to how much moonshine a distiller can produce.

One of the display stills inside Franklin County Distilleries

Franklin County Distilleries can only produce 5,000 gallons, annually, but Argabright says he can still offer his customers a high quality moonshine.

“We’ve had some good local support from it, so we’re just happy that everybody is coming down and enjoying some good ol’ Franklin County moonshine or corn whiskey, as we call it, since the taxes have been paid,” Argabright said with a laugh.

For Franklin County, moonshining is a family business, and one of the most notorious families is the Law family.

Owen Law started as a bootlegger in the 1920’s.

“He died when he was 92, and he was still under probation,” said Henry Law.

Henry and his cousin Kenny Law are the grandsons of Owen.

Henry’s dad, Amos, became one of the most notorious moonshiners in the country and showed Henry and Kenny the ropes when they were kids.

Amos Law

“He said ‘Well son, you know if you go in there, you’ll have diamonds on your fingers, gold around your neck, but one damn thing to be sure of is shackles on your feet,'” said Henry, reciting his dad’s words from memory.

The Law cousins took the family moonshining business into the stratosphere, not worried about taxes or limits on production.

“I’ve got a list right here,” Henry said, unfolding a piece of paper in his pocket. “5,600 pounds of sugar a week, which makes 291,200 pounds of sugar a year.”

“Back in the heyday, me and him, we made about as much liquor as anybody in the country, or more I would say,” Kenny said.

“Just me and Kenny, we were knocking down, annually, 47,000 — 47,000 gallons a year,” Henry emphasized. “We couldn’t get it out of the woods quick enough.”

The Law family, ironically, were always on the run from the law.

Henry and Kenny both joke that when the holidays came around and everyone was at the table, it was a good year, meaning no one at the moment was in jail.

Moonshiners were no strangers to law enforcement, but it was Operation Lightning Strike at the turn of the century that brought the business in Franklin County to a screeching halt.

“They started using the laws against the moonshiners like they used against the mafia back all those years ago and started taking peoples’ property,” Henry said. “You can’t afford to do it illegally.”

“It’s not worth the loss,” Kenny added.

The Law cousins decided around four years ago to take their practice to the legal side, taking advice from one of their probation officers, of all people.

“He (the probation officer) said ‘I’m gonna tell you. If y’all put in half the emphasis in doing something legal, you’re going to be successful,'” Kenny recalled.

Now, Law’s Choice is filling liquor store shelves in southern Virginia, using Amos’ family recipe.

“We used to be looking over our shoulder continuously,” Henry said. “Now, we’re able to sit down and take our time.”

Henry and Kenny use the old methods taught to them by Amos and other shiners during Franklin County’s heyday.

It took a moment for folks to take Law’s Choice as the real deal.

“People questioned it, right smart,” Kenny said. “Me and Henry, we tried to tell them. They think it’s different, but it’s not.”

“It’s a whole different ballgame, legally. We know there’s a market for it; we sold millions of gallons of it down the East Coast. We’re trying to tap into the now, and it’s exciting, real exciting.”

“Unfortunately, there are some larger distilleries that are just trying to mass produce something and slap moonshine on it,” Tickle said. “…but I can promise you this,” talking about the Laws. “It’s done just like you would in the woods, on the same stills. He has legal sub pots there, and they still make it the exact same way they made it back in the woods.

What was once something hidden is now something that’s promoted in the county.

The month of April is now Moonshine Heritage Month in Franklin County.

The year 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition, and you can imagine folks like Rotenizer looked at the year as an opportunity on which to capitalize.

“We were all geared up,” Rotenizer said. “We had probably two dozen special events and activities and programs, and we were fired up and ready to go. COVID-19 hit, so we had to pull the plug.”

Rotenizer isn’t put down easily. Now, he’s simply going to use the next 13 years, the same number of years prohibition was in effect, as a countdown to the 100th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, a solid save for promoting moonshine heritage.

“You mention moonshine heritage, it’s something you don’t think about, and then ‘oh!’ There’s just something magic about it, something different,” Rotenizer said.

“The lore of it, the mystique of the moonshiner, I think, people find so interesting, but for us it was just a business,” Worley said.

“We never looked at it like we were a part of that being handed down to us and then we could possibly hand it down to our children. We never thought of that,” Henry said in amazement.

“Never thought about it at all,” Kenny said at the same time.

Henry Law’s Book 100 Proof

“It just amazes me now that we’re a part of that,” Kenny finished.

Henry put the Law family story and other’s from Franklin County’s moonshining days into a book. He titled it “100 Proof.”

“Dad was still alive, and I found all these documents,” Henry said. “I’ve got proof of everything in this book, documentations, affidavits, warrants, prison letters, you name it, in this book that tells the whole story, the true story of moonshiners.”

That book now sits in the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum.

Though Franklin County’s heyday of illegal moonshining is behind it, the stories, festivals, and experiences show anyone who visits that this part of Virginia is for Moonshine Lovers.

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