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Moonshining On The Rise in East Texas

Joseph Burton: The fresh face of resurgent East Texas moonshining
Joseph Burton: The fresh face of resurgent East Texas moonshining
Trinity County Constable Woody Wallace

For the second time this month, East Texas cops have broken up a moonshining operation.

The latest case took place near Tyler, in tiny New Chapel Hill. Smith County Constables seized two stills belonging to one man whom they have charged with a misdemeanor, with more charges possibly pending.

Cops told the Tyler Morning Register that they couldn't remember the last white lightnin' seizure in the area -- they thought it came in the 1980s or maybe even the '70s, when Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed and the Duke boys were frequently seen on area backroads, taunting red-faced cops and hurtling through the air in orange muscle cars.

Just kidding about that, but it looks like there is a pop-culture element to this case, and possibly another one in Trinity, where earlier this month, constables arrested 20-year-old Joseph Burton and seized his still along with some weed.

TABC Sgt. Marcus Stokke believes the Discovery Channel reality show Moonshiners is to blame.

Moonshiners star Popcorn Sutton: Legendary Appalachian moonshiner looked the part a little more than Joseph Burton.
Moonshiners star Popcorn Sutton: Legendary Appalachian moonshiner looked the part a little more than Joseph Burton.
Sucker Punch Pictures

According to the Texas State Historical Association, Texans have been making whiskey outside of the law since the earliest pioneer days, and the trade's heyday came during Prohibition. Continues the TSHA:

Though their activities were against the law, many moonshiners thought that they were unfairly persecuted and resented being treated as common criminals. In regions where the local economy provided few opportunities for material advancement or where the residents harbored a strong distrust of central authority, moonshiners occasionally attained the status of folk heroes who beat the system by earning good money and displayed guile and gall by outwitting meddlesome government agents.

During hard times some Texans turned to moonshining as a lucrative alternative to low-paying manual labor or no work at all. Quite a few illicit distillers pursued their trade on a seasonal basis, running their stills during the winter months when opportunities for legitimate employment were scarce. During the Great Depression some people viewed moonshining as an honorable alternative to the humiliation of employment lines or government relief.

Occasionally, the moonshiners' prosperity would irritate law-abiding or less successful citizens, but the whiskey makers frequently operated with the tacit support of the community, whose members appreciated a ready source of cheap liquor. Local law enforcers were often motivated by unofficial sympathy or well-placed bribes to turn a blind eye toward illegal whiskey operations.

With the repeal of Prohibition and the gradual disappearance of many of Texas' dry counties, moonshining has long been on the wane. At one point before World War II, US government agents -- the dreaded "revenooers" -- were seizing 25 stills a month in Southeast Texas alone. By 1970 that number had dwindled to six for the year, which was still enough to rank Texas fifth in the nation behind only Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, where many of the Texas moonshiners' ancestors likely came from.

At any rate, a few years back, in James McMurtry's epic boogie "Choctaw Bingo," the uber-ornery ex-moonshiner Uncle Slayton "cooks that meth because the shine don't sell, he likes that money and he don't mind the smell."

So these latest developments are quite a turnabout. With three stills seized this quarter, Texas is on pace to double 1970s number. And say what you will about demon rum, but it is a hell of a lot better than meth.


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