Amos Owens: Rutherford’s Most Colorful Character
Part 2 of 5: “We’re aimin’ to marry this evenin’”
Owens was born around 1822, on Sandy Run in Rutherford County, Kentucky [sic]. 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.