Amos Owens: Rutherford’s Most Colorful Character
Part 1 of 5: 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.