From Mountain Spirits: A Chronicle of Corn Whiskey by Joseph Earl Dabney. Bright Mountain Books, 206 Riva Ridge Drive, Fairview, NC 28730. Copyright 1974. Used by permission.
The County home
The Old Man of the Mountain
Amos Owens lived in the hills of Rutherford County in the 1800s, but his legend lives on. His story is best told in Mr. Dabney's book, the definitive history of blockading, moonshining and bootlegging in the Appalachians and beyond. The publisher, Bright Mountain Books, has graciously allowed us to share these excerpts with you.
One of the most colorful moonshiners to grace a federal court during the post Civil War period was Amos Owens, widely known as the “cherry bounce king” of Rutherford County, North Carolina. Owens' “bounce” formula was a generous portion of his finest corn whiskey, with a few dashes of sourwood honey and cherry juice added, the juice, so it was said, having been trod from the cherries by the bare feet of his beautiful daughters, in true Old World style.
A rotund, red-faced, leprechaun of an Irishman, whose highpitched “whiskey tenor” voice commanded the awe of his friends and foes, Owens was the epitome of the Appalachian moonshiner of the 1800s. He was a hard-drinking, defiant, freedom-loving outdoorsman who believed it was his God-given right to turn his fruit and grain into “legal tender” brandy and liquor without being hamstrung by a “dad-burned” federal excise tax. In this regard he, like others, was carrying forward the traditions of his blockading predecessors who had been contemptuous to a man of any attempt to restrict their “inalienable rights” to make a livelihood from their land, so long as their activities did not interfere with the rights of their neighbors.
As with most pioneer farmers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in the Appalachians, Owens had no reason to consider his “diversification” into whiskey-making as anything illegal or immoral. He reasoned the land was his, the corn and the cherries and apples were his, the copper pot still was his. Moreover, he had suffered near starvation in a Union stockade as a Rebel prisoner. Arriving home deathly ill before the end of the war, he found his
only slave had been freed by the enemy. Then “why in tarnation,” he reasoned, should he share the yield from his blockading labors with Washington? He vowed he'd not pay a cent of excise tax.
Yet, despite his angry defiance, when accosted at his still by federal agents, he never attempted to run, never tried to escape from imprisonment and, typical of practically all corn whiskey producers of his era, always showed up in court on his own when summoned.
Picture this, a recollection of Owens by Lee Weathers, former editor of the Shelby, North Carolina, Star:
Uncle Amos was a household word in these parts before the turn of the century. I remember having seen him once as a child when my family lived near the Seaboard depot. . . . Owens was sitting in a passenger coach, riding to Charlotte for his fourth trial in Federal Court for making and selling moonshine liquor and refusing to pay the revenue. ... He was a jovial passenger, wearing a high beaver hat and a Prince Albert coat. A pair of homemade leather suspenders held up his baggy trousers. Everybody seemed to know Amos. He greeted his friends and moonshine customers with a grin, admitting that he might be sent back to Sing Sing in Ossining for a`post graduate course.'
“Yep, I reckilect plenty 'bout Amos,” an old-timer told the Asheville Citizen in I933, “but I'm afeered it's not what could be printed. There warn't but one Amos! His likker? Now that was a drink for you. Why, with one swig from a jug of Amos Owens' cherry bounce, ary man in the state could lick this depression single-handed.”
Why, with one swig from a jug of Amos Owens' cherry bounce, ary man in the state could lick this depression single-handed.In his early trials, Owens often won acquittal, “for the roars of laughter he evoked prejudiced even stern justice in his favor.” Even while on trial, Amos would proudly defy his captors by stationing one of his cronies from Cherry Mountain right outside the courthouse with a wagonload of whiskey, the spirits being covered by sweet potatoes and chestnuts. A usual load was “20 bushels of 'taters and 40 gallons of corn whiskey.” By the time his trial was over, he would have in hand more than enough cash to pay off his lawyer and his fine.
Federal Judge Robert Payne Dick took a great liking to the spunky little blockader. But he wearied of Owens' continued appearance in court for defiance of federal liquor laws.
“Uncle Amos,” the judge declared at one trial, “I want to tell you something. You've given this court lots of trouble.”
“And jedge,” Amos replied in his near falsetto voice (apparently a result of having drunk his over 100-proof corn liquor “neat” for years), “Jedge, I want to tell you sump'n. This hyar court's give me lots of trouble, too!”
On a subsequent occasion, back in the same court, Amos was sternly rebuked.
“Amos Owens, stand up,” Judge Dick ordered. “You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart again, against the majesty of the law. You have made whiskey and sold the same. Why do you persist in your lawless course? Look at me . . . I am sixty years of age, was never drunk, and have never incurred the woe of putting the bottle to my neighbor's lips. What have you to say, why the sentence of the law should not be pronounced upon you?”
“Waal, Jedge,” Amos warbled, as he winked to the crowd, “you've missed a durned lotsa fun if you hain't never made, drunk nor sold no likker.” Then he added the following intriguing remark: “As to what I have to say about a sentence? Jedge, do you know what the gov'nor of North Caroliny said to the gov'nor of South Caroliny? Waal, jedge, them's my sentiments.”
For many years, I had heard this expression about the famous conversation between the two unspecified governors, but nobody could tell me what was really said. Some people told me it was a fictitious “bit of malarky,” meaning, “To hell with you, too.” Others said it was merely a cliche to indicate that nothing really was said. But The Atlanta Constitution's “Action Line” came through magnificently. The answer?
“It's been a long time between drinks!”
It was a patently ironic comment for a notorious liquor-maker to make to a federal judge preparing to pass judgment on him! Judge Dick didn't find the response a bit funny, and sent Amos up to the federal pen for a year and fined him twelve hundred dollars.
During his fifty-odd year career of “stillin,' ” Owens' notoriety for squeezing out great corn whiskey and fruit brandy spread far, despite the limited communications of the time. His greatest fame obviously rode on his cherry bounce, known in backwoods hamlets and saloons across the South and as far as the Mississippi River, where bartenders kept a few jugs in the luxury paddle wheelers that plied the river from Cincinnati to New Orleans. Amos invited folks to an annual cherry bounce celebration every second Sunday in June, when the black-heart cherries were ripest. People would ride in on their horses and mules and in their wagons and buggies, pulled by oxen and mules. Hundreds would also come on foot by a narrow dirt road whose deep ruts circled the sides of Cherry Mountain to the remote table-like mountaintop.
M. L. White, a Polkville, North Carolina, school teacher who “wrote up” Owens' life under the pen name “Corn Cracker,” waxed extravagant when picturing the mountain scene:
Amos owned Cherry Mountain which was 3,000 feet above the level of the sea. From here was a most enchanting view of the mountain scenery that is called the 'Switzerland of America.' From here could be seen Shelby, Rutherfordton, King's Mountain, with a view of the mountains of Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. Here could be breathed the pure air of heaven, and here as pure limpid water as ever gurgled from the bosom earth rippled down the delves of the mountains. Here grew the famous cherry trees, some three feet in diameter, and are found nowhere else, that yielded every June a crop of fruit remarkable for its size and flavor. Here was found the ideal honey-producing flavors of poplar, chestnut and sourwood, and here was the ideal range for the cattle of a thousand hills. The home of the cow, honeybee, pure water and invigorating mountain air, and not excelled on earth for the fruit tree and the vine. Amos said here would he build a castle like the baron of feudal times, and here should be the land of milk and honey, peach and honey, and the abiding place of cherry bounce.
A more down-to-earth description of the festival was given by Owens' granddaughter in Shelby:
The family would cook for a week beforehand, barbecuing pigs and cooking chicken and ham and beef and all kinds of vegetables. People came from miles around. They paid 25 cents per plate. They danced and drank for as long as the food and drink and money lasted. Some would get so drunk and carried away they would dance in the nude. One man caught his daughter and her escort in this way and made them marry. Some would ride their mules through the dance hall. People wrote their names across the walls. You couldn't find a spot as big as your hand on any of the walls because they were filled with names and addresses scrawled on them.
Amos was a genial host to his throng of merrymakers. While one group would be dancing in the barn-like hall to the sound of a fiddle and the pat-pat-pat of the fiddler's foot, another cluster of people would be eating the food that was spread on the groaning tables. Still another group might be watching or participating in the boxing contests, which often developed into rough brawls. For the guests who passed out under the influence of the liquid beverages, the cellar was available to sleep it off.
“Gander-pulling” was one of the diversions Owens offered to his guests. Cruel though it was, gander-pulling, which came from England, was one of the most popular diversions among mountain people in the 1800s, and Amos made sure that his ring was equal to any. The object, brutal to say, was to break the gander's neck and pull off the head. Amos plucked the feathers from a gander and strung him up by his legs onto the branch of a tree, just high enough so that a rider com »ing by would have to stretch to reach the head. Then Amos took a gourd of goose grease and spread it liberally all over the gander's head and neck. The gander, meanwhile, was squalling and clacking all the while as he swayed to and fro in wait for the first rider. When Amos fired his long squirrel rifle, the contest began. As a rider swung by on his way for the gander, Amos would pop the horse's rump with his rawhide whip, making it more difficult to grab the gander.
During the next hour, the crowd would yell, “He's a gone goose!”
At the end, the winner would proudly bring the head to Amos claim his prize. Amos, meanwhile, had collected twenty-five cents an entrant from the competitors and was therefore able to give the winner a good prize.
Amos offered still other amusements, such as cockfights and dog fights. All for money, of course. Amos was about as close with his money as were his Scotch-Irish neighbors. After the celebration had ended and the crowd had pulled out, Amos would pile his “take” into half-bushel baskets, lash the baskets onto the back of a mule and ride across the mountain and bury them. He always carried his shotgun and threatened to kill anyone who followed. No one ever dared.
Before his death, the old man commissioned “Corn Cracker” to write his biography. The fifty-five-page pamphlet was printed in 1901, the type having been set laboriously by hand, a letter at a time.
The booklet carried a Lincolnesque picture of Owens, wearing his high silk beaver—a gift of an admiring federal judge. It also contained a picture of Owens' Cherry Mountain home, which he described as being “three stories long and one story high.” Pictured in the yard is a large copper pot still with Amos proudly standing by in shirt sleeves, smoking a corncob pipe. Although it is written with a great deal of flourish and long-winded ambiguity, occasional paragraphs stand out, shedding light on the old man's experiences.
Continue reading on the “His Early Years” page
“We're aimin' to marry this evenin'”
Owens was born around 1822, on Sandy Run in Rutherford County, Kentucky. His father was said to have been a ne'er-do-well. His grandfather was a native North Carolinian and a patriot of the Revolution, having been among the corn whiskey-making, mainly Scotch-Irish sharpshooters from the hill country of the Carolinas and Tennessee who, with their long Pennsylvania rifles, challenged and defeated Ferguson's Redcoats and Tories at Kings Mountain. Five miles from Owens' home, nine of the surviving Tories from Kings Mountain were strung up and hung at what became known as the “gallows oak.”
Here's how White described Owens' early life.
“Except for a rugged, well-knit frame, a constitution like boardinghouse butter, digestion like the bowels of a threshing machine, there was nothing especially unbearable about the youth of Amos Owens. He was strong, active, an unerring shot, and, while peaceable, would fight desperately when aroused. Amos was unlettered, having never attended school but a few days.”
At age nine, he was hired out as a “hewer of wood and drawer of water” (a good term straight out of Ireland of the 1700s), a job he maintained for thirteen years. In 1845, he bought 100 acres of land near Cherry Mountain, but the severe drought prevented him from producing much of a crop. Perhaps this is the reason he turned to making whiskey and brandy. In any event, his biographer relates that in 1845 with the use of a “turnip-type” copper pot still Owens began converting his corn, cherries, and apples into liquor and brandy. At that time, of course, there was no federal excise tax on whiskey or on distilleries.
Now a property owner, Amos was ready to settle down and get married. He courted Mary Ann Sweezy from a neighboring mountain. When he got ready to pop the question, he rode over to “Old Man Sweezy's,” where he found the bewhiskered gentleman pulling “sucker” shoots from his tobacco plants. Sweezy called out for him to “light and look at her saddle,” which translates into “get out and set a spell.”
“Hain't got time,” said Amos. “Where's Mary Ann?”
“She's gone atter walnuts to dye some cloth. What's up?”
“Nothing much. We're aimin' to marry this evenin'.”
“Marry, the devil?” the old man exhorted.
“No, jest his daughter,” said Amos, grinning. “I hain't no notion to marry the whole family.”
The bride-to-be appeared, bareheaded and barefooted, with her walnuts. She ran in and put on her homemade shoes and “wagoncover” bonnet and climbed onto the horse behind her man. Leaving her father standing in his tobacco patch with his mouth agape, the two galloped off in search for a justice of the peace. Amos rewarded the J.P. a quart of his finest apple brandy and a coonskin. Both of these items were valuable and “legal tender.”
She ran in and put on her homemade shoes and “wagoncover” bonnet and climbed onto the horse behind her man. Around 1851, at age twenty-nine, Amos had put aside enough corn whiskey and brandy profits to buy Cherry Mountain itself. He acquired 100 acres in one tract and 140 in another. Amos quickly got to work and “caused the mountain to blossom as a rose.” He grew fine corn, wheat, and oats and was especially proud of his giant cherry trees growing wild on the mountainside. The fruit of all of these, of course, could be turned into spirits.
When the Civil War erupted in 1860, thirty-eight-year-old Amos joined the Confederate Army's 16th North Carolina Regiment. His action was in contrast to that of many other moonshiners further west: in far western North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, many joined the Union forces. Owens fought with the Rebels in Virginia's Blue Ridge valley and mountain region and also at Mannassas and later joined the 56th North Carolina Regiment, fighting subsequently as a sharpshooter in the siege of Petersburg.
Following the war, during which the federal government reimposed excise taxes on all whiskey and on distilleries, Amos “registered a blood red oath that this tax he'd never pay.”
From atop his 3,000-foot high mountain stronghold, with the help of a telescope, he could spy on the revenuer coming from afar, those much-hated “red-legged grasshoppers,” as they were called by Zeb Vance, onetime governor of North Carolina. Despite his lookout, Amos got caught on numerous occasions, but never fled.
Altogether during his career of illicit whiskey-making, Owens had nine distilling outfits destroyed and served three terms in the penitentiary.
In 1890, the revenuers arrested him for the fourth time, for the same old offense, and again he was taken before Judge Dick-this time in Charlotte. Now sixty-eight, white-haired, and his back bent with age, Amos' appearance evoked apparent compassion in the heart of the judge.
Asking Amos to stand up, Judge Dick recalled that he had sent him to the pen on three occasions. “You are said to be a man of noble impulses and many worthy traits of character. Your gray hairs should be a crown of glory instead of a badge of infamy. Amos, I can't but believe there are deep and hidden well-springs of good in your nature, and ere I am called to the bar of just God, I shall appeal to the generosity of your better nature. Amos, man to man, will you cease to violate the laws of our country and be an outcast of society?”
An intense hush pervaded the courtroom.
The hardened look of defiance faded from Amos' face, his biographer reported, tears welled in his eyes, his rugged frame shook with feeling. In a voice choking with emotion, he said:
“Jedge, I'll try.”
“The effect was electrical,” recalled biographer White. “All the judicial dignity in the state could not have restrained the rapturous yell that rose from the audience, packed to overflowing. The sight of the audacious moonshiner, who had hitherto seemed to have a demoniac spirit that no man could tame, weeping with contrition at the bar of justice, and the dignified judge in tears, convinced all present that 'a touch of nature makes us all wondrous kind.'”
The lawyers present, the newsmen, and many others, “including a red-legged grasshopper,” shook Amos' hand.
“Then and thereupon, the lawyers of Shelby, Charlotte and Rutherfordton 'chipped in' and bought Owens a fine beaver top hat and a pair of gold-banded eye glasses,” White reported.
His granddaughter said that he always had said he would make moonshine all his life and that when he died, he would hang a coffee pot on the corner of the moon and keep on making it.
But Uncle Amos returned home and, as far as history records, never again fired up his still.
In his advancing years, Amos “got right with God,” so the story goes, and became a devout member of the church.
He died quietly in his nineties in his “three-story”-long castle atop Cherry Mountain.
Courtroom Wit and Wisdom
Judge: Well, sir! I want to know why it is that you, who look like an honest man, persist in pursuing this illicit whiskey business? I want to know whether, after the lenience shown you by this court, you expect to come back here any more.
Defendant: Why, bygosh, jedge, I didn't come here this time!
Judge: Well, then, how did you get here?
Defendant: They forth me! Yes, sir, jedge, they forth me! I didn't come here, jedge, and I never will come here, you needn't be oneasy about that.
—North Carolina trial
A federal judge asked famed western North Carolina blockader Quill Rose if it was true that aging improved corn whiskey.
”Your honor has been misinformed. I kept some for a week one time and I could not tell it was a bit better than when it was new and fresh.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s most of the cases in federal courts in the Appalachians involved moonshining, and the trials afford a good opportunity to observe the manner of men who had elected to go into the distilling enterprise.
“Big Court Week” was possibly the most notable event of the year for the hill people, rivaling revivals and camp meetings. In the valleys, coves, and ridges for miles around, citizens would put aside their plows and Winchester rifles and mash sticks and head for the courthouse. There they would catch up on the news with their friends and kinfolks—and listen intently with hands cupped to their ears as the trial testimony unfolded.
The wooden benches in the courtroom usually were packed with the rough-hewn folk, who brought along plenteous plugs of tobacco and tins of snuff. The informal courtroom atmosphere was enlivened by volleys of tobacco juice arching to the brass spittoons along the walls and aisles.
Many of the moonshine defendants—they usually referred to themselves as blockaders—exhibited a natural knack for common sense.Henry Wiltse, who put down his experiences in a little book published in 1885, described the sort of men who were on trial. The average moonshiner of the era, he said, would be dressed in homespun, had long hair, an unkempt sandy beard, and smelled of the mountains, of the leaves and wood soil that permeated his clothing. Meal and still beer often could be seen caked on his shirt. He wore no coat or vest, unless the weather was cold. He usually had no suspenders or only one (a “gallus”), and in lieu of suspenders would wear a leather belt or an old piece of rope. He was somewhat above average height, inclined to be slight in proportion to his height, and somewhat stoop-shouldered.
Despite their rough appearance, uncultured background, and limited knowledge of the ways of the world, many of the moonshine defendants—they usually referred to themselves as blockaders—exhibited a natural knack for common sense. Often, they appeared in court as their own counselors, defending their cases with humor, shrewdness and, on occasion, amazing success.
For example, there was the Baptist preacher who was brought to trial for illicit distilling and for trafficking in mountain dew. As his name was called, he arose from his seat among the lawyers to declare, “Your honor, I am the man.” His confident, commanding bearing immediately attracted the attention of the audience. Feeling in his pockets for his glasses, he discovered, to his apparent surprise, he had left them at home. He looked up at the bench and declared: “Jedge, I see you are a man about my age, will you be kind enough to loan me your specks for a few minutes?”
Grins spread through the audience at the boldness of the old parson. While everyone enjoyed a laugh, including the court and the bar, the judge dispatched a bailiff with his eyeglasses to the defendant.
Holding up the glasses, the preacher-moonshiner rubbed them intently with a threadbare handkerchief, then declared:
“Jedge, them's might' nice looking specks. They are yaller and look as though they mout be gold. Are they gold or brass, jedge?”
By this time, the courtroom was in near hysteria, with people elbowing one another in great merriment.
The preacher, meantime, remained calm, composed, and intent. Finally, he picked up a book and began to look it over with deliberateness. Again he turned to the judge:
“Jedge, these is fine specks, but they are a little too young for me; and I'm sure I wouldn't a-thought so, seein' as how you are so gray beaded; but gray hairs is not allers a sign of age. There's my old woman. She's whiter headed nor you are, Jedge, and she's ten year younger nor me, so you see that's no sign.”
A new outburst of laughter forced the judge to rap his gavel for order.
“Now, jedge, if you will let me see what you say agin me in your warrant, I'll tell you what I've got to say about it.”
To this the audience applauded enthusiastically.
The solicitor brought out the indictment, and the old parson read it through, tossed it onto the table and made the following statement to the court:
“Jedge, that paper says I carried on the business of a distiller, and the business of a retail liquor dealer, when I tell your honor that I did no such thing. My business is farmin' duren the week days, and preachin' on Sundays, and now I would like for you to tell me, when I have spent all my time as I've been tellen you, how I could carry on them two other kinds of business what that paper says I do? [Laughter.] If I do all that, Jedge, I must be an unusual kind of man, mustn't I? [Laughter.] Now, I tell you what I have done—no more, no less—and I am tellen of the truth, too. I just made two runs last fall and one run of peppermint in Jannywary, and in them three runs I didn't make over thirty gallon in all, and it was for medicine, too. One of the gals in the neighborhood was sick with the breast complaint, and another one was down with the yaller janders, and I wouldn't of made the runs I tell you about if it hadn't been on their account. Now them's the facts, as God is my jedge.”
A thundering applause roared through the courtroom as he took his seat.
The judge asked the old moonshiner if he were lenient with him on this, his first offense, whether he would stop making whiskey illicitly. The parson indicated he thought he could stop. The judge fined him one hundred dollars, and court costs, lenient for a well-heeled whiskey-maker.
Pictures from Cherry Mountain
|Amos in his ever-present top hat.
||Amos and Mary Anne (we presume) in a closer look from the image below.
Amos and his friends, or neighbors?, or gang? There are too few women present for this to be a family group. Whether we admit it or not, this is how our ancestors looked.
A Sports Utility Vehicle of the 1800s. This may (or may not) be a photo connected to Owens, but it was a familiar scene in Rutherford County in Amos' time.
About these photos: They were found in Roy Lee Harris' collection, among several he had copied from old prints, tintypes and negatives. It's not known for whom he copied these.