TV show features Sheriff

By Abby Morris-Frye
star staff

  While the old backwoods art of moonshining may be nearing extinction, interest in the subject is far from finished.
  Country Music Television (CMT), a cable network devoted to all things country, will feature a special episode of its regular show "Most Shocking" this weekend entitled "Moonshine Madness". One of the law enforcement officers interviewed for the show is Carter County Sheriff John Henson.
  This was not Henson's first interview with the television network on the subject. "They interviewed me years ago when moonshine and white liquor was a big deal in Carter County; really it was a big deal all over East Tennessee," he said. "When I first started here (the Carter County Sheriff's Department) we spent a lot of our time out in the woods hunting stills and chasing bootleggers."
  But, according to Henson, the days of moonshining and home brewing whiskey are a thing of the past. "Moonshining in Carter County is just about history. Back in those days, it was the way a lot of people made a living because there wasn't much work around and they had to find some way to feed their families," he said. "Now drugs have taken over and moonshining is out. You very seldom see moonshining in Carter County anymore. It's a thing of the past."
  The rural areas of Stoney Creek, Roan Mountain and Buck Mountain were home to many moonshiners "back in the day", Henson said. "Buck Mountain was the king," he said. "There was a lot of liquor made on Buck Mountain and Walnut Mountain."
  The mountainous areas of the county provided a natural home for moonshine stills because the locations were hard to find, and streams and creeks in the area provided water bootleggers needed to make their product.
  "They would get back in these mountains where the springs and branches run and set one up in a laurel thicket," Henson said. "They were always close to a little creek or a stream so they would have water nearby."
  Often during the days of moonshining law enforcement officers followed a stream and looked for trails that led away from it. "When you would find a trail and follow it, you would almost always find a still," Henson said. "They would always be real well hidden under brush and stuff. You could stand 100 feet from one and never see it."
  While some people may have the idea that roaming through the woods and busting up stills would be an adventurous task for law enforcement officers, the task was also a very dangerous one - one that could cost them their lives.
  "If you went in on a moonshine still they would shoot you. They would just open fire," Henson said. "I've been pinned down several times." And in those days, officers were not as well armed or protected with bullet proof vests or body armor.
  Another problem was vandalism to police vehicles. Many times bootleggers would sneak down to police cars and slash tires or cut wires in them. "They would disable our vehicles by cutting the wires or the tires on them. It got so bad we would have to leave someone with the car when we'd go to find or bust up a still," Henson said. "They wasn't a bit happy over you cutting their still up."
  In those days, damaging a deputy's car was taking money out of the deputy's pocket because, at that time, a sheriff's department deputy had to supply their own vehicle, gas, firearm, ammunition, uniform and many other things that are now common for law enforcement officers to be supplied with by the county. "If they cut a set of tires on my car or cut the wires, it was my responsibility to fix the car, not the county's. If they shot the windows out I had to pay for it out of my pocket, Henson said. "The only thing the county furnished us with was a two-way which if you got ten miles away from the station it didn't work."
  A lot has changed since those days of moonshine running and bootlegging, according to Henson. "All the old timers who used to make white liquor and run moonshine are gone," he said. "Now we spend all our time looking for drugs."
  The CMT special "Moonshine Madness" will air Saturday night at 9 p.m. "CMT investigates the backwoods brewing of illegal substances, both past and present," states information about the show on the television station's Web site. "Find out how running moonshine played a part in the birth of NASCAR, with drivers honing their skills running liquor from the stills to the distributors."