Cherry Trees for Sale
Most of us have heard of Amos Owens and his famous “Cherry Bounce,” the liquor he made with cherries from the trees on his Cherry Mountain property in northeast Rutherford County. But have you heard of the great “Amos Owens Cherry Tree Company” swindle?
The scheme was dreamed up sometime around 1900 by a handful of prominent county businessmen. Trading on old Amos’ notorious name, the swindle hinged on selling “his” trees to prospective backyard moonshiners near and far. It is unlikely Owens himself had anything to do with the “Tree company,” short of lending his name and agreeing to provide trees, and even that is unproven.
It was a pyramid scheme not unlike those we hear about today. The company enlisted agents, from whom they required an up-front fee, and to whom they promised a monthly salary. The agents’ mission was to sell trees, along with the expectation, no doubt, that in five or ten years fruit from the bounteous trees would, with a little distillation, yield gallons of Cherry Bounce.
It appears that the company targeted only young women as their prospective sales agents. From each of the young ladies who answered the solicitation, the promoters had collected a $12 up-front fee. The agreement between the prospective agents and the company included a promise of a monthly salary of $20. From all indications, no trees were ever delivered, nor were any salaries paid.
The defendants in several court appearances in Rutherfordton and Charlotte included Rev. Frank Bright, C.D. Wilkie, W.H. Hester, C.F. Greer, H.L. Clower, J.T. Tolliver and George W. Rollins. The partnership leader was W.H, Hester, who managed the financial business of the partnership; the others were merely investors who at first probably paid very little attention to the partnership financial endeavors.
Because the U.S. Mail was used to solicit agents and customers, mail fraud was the principal charge.
The judge gave defendants the option of paying back the many women who had been induced into the swindle, or pay fines and serve sentences in jail. Most of the defendants made arrangements satisfactory to the Court, but Frank Bright, a Baptist minister, was not among them. He was sentenced to six months in jail and paid a fine of $500. Nor was W.H. Hester, who chose 10 days in jail and a $100 fine.
Their indiscretions seemed not to tarnish their reputations or diminish their standing in the community. C. D. Wilkie, a local job printer, in 1903 became the editor and publisher of the Sun. C.F. Geer, a retail merchant in Rutherfordton, later served as the town’s mayor from May 1923 thru December of 1926. George W. Rollins would be elected to the County Board of Commissioners in November, 1920 and reelected in November, 1922 for a four-year term. H.L. Clower worked in the Florence Mills Company Store in Forest City. On January 9, 1902, he and Mrs. Clower leased and took over operation of the boarding house at Caroleen.
By the summer of 1903 all interest in the case had died down.
A year later, the Cherry Bounce king, now in his eighties, took out an advertisement in the Sun:
I will sell at Public Auction, my residence on Cherry Mountain on June 11, 1904, and all my household furniture and implements. —Amos Owens.
Still, in June of 1905 he was charged once again with “retailing” (selling spirituous liquors). It’s unlikely, because of his frail health, he was able to appear in court to answer these charges.
Amos died on September 18, 1906. In the family Bible his date of birth is recorded as February 2, 1821. At the grave site at Wall’s Baptist Church his tombstone merely records his name and the initials C.S.A. (for Confederate States of America, in whose army he had served).
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of The Cliffside Chimes, the Society’s newsletter.