1717-1750: Early Appalachia
As the coastal lands of early America began to fi ll with immigrants, settlers seeking land, freedom and a new way of life began pushing west to the Appalachian Mountains. As they settled into the area, elements of their distinct European heritage were retained, while other aspects changed due to their immediate environment. This unique combination created the culture of Appalachia. Primarily farmers and skilled craftsmen, the settlers were generally of three ethnic origins: Ulster Scots or Scot-Irish, English and German. Appalachia is often glorifi ed through folk art for its rare entanglement of culture and craft — each group shifting and sharing, learning and teaching, in order to survive. A variety of crops were grown on the frontier, including many that were brought from Europe, as well as those native to America. One of the most important crops was “Indian corn” or maize, which was adopted from Native Americans, and served as a staple for survival. Its popularity boomed with the discovery of its fermentation, leading to the creation of corn whiskey. This unearthing would soon become a considerable part of the lore and legend of early Appalachia. Though the earth provided abundantly, life was sustained and prosperous only through hard work and frugal living. From a life of struggle came the Appalachian tradition of songwriting and storytelling. A new land, the rugged mountains and the spirit of Appalachia became the backdrop for this historically signifi cant and culturally diverse group of people.
1750-1775: The Cumberland Gap
Word spread, and the appeal of the Appalachian Mountains grew. Settlers began seeking a path to the area through the Cumberland Gap. It later became known as “Thunder Road,” a popular route for transporting moonshine. Unlike the trails taken by its earliest settlers, the wider passageway allowed the use of a wagon, as well as an increase in supplies and goods. The voyage was treacherous, and many died from illness and in Native American attacks as they made their way through the Appalachian hills. Land speculators saw an opportunity for development and hired Daniel Boone to lead the trail for travelers through this unpredictable stretch of wilderness. Boone, along with a team of 30 axemen, selected the most direct route from existing trails and “blazed” through the area, creating an otherwise impossible opportunity for hundreds of thousands of pioneers to settle this portion of the American frontier. Today, an estimated onesixth of the U.S. population can trace their ancestry back to someone who hiked on Daniel Boone’s team that trekked through the Cumberland Gap.
1775-1860: Rifles and Revolution
Southern Appalachia possessed a patriotic legacy that stemmed from the desire to conquer adversity with the same grit that they used to conquer the mountains. Their courage and knowledge of the backwoods made them outstanding soldiers, and the fi rst English-speaking people to use rifl es with precision. They formed the rear guard in the American Revolution, were the fi rst outside colonists to assist their New England brethren at the siege of Boston, and carried the victories at Saratoga, the Cowpens and Kings Mountain. Even before the war, Appalachian farmers were making and selling homedistilled alcohol or “moonshine,” as a way to turn their corn into cash. Moonshine, also known as “white lightning,” is 100-proof alcohol derived from the fermentation of corn. The sweet mash whiskey was sold for a profi t and kept on-hand as a general tonic, as well as for medical purposes. Shortly after the Revolution, the U.S. government decided to levy a high tax on liquor and spirits despite the war’s purpose to end oppressive government taxation. Making whiskey meant making money — income that people could not afford to lose. Many continued making their own alcohol and disregarded the excessive federal tax. Historian Horace Kephart lived among the Appalachian people for many years and came to understand the role that making and selling moonshine played in the Appalachian culture. Kephart later explained, “Although a criminal in the eyes of the law, [the moonshiner] is soundly convinced that the law is unjust, and that he is only exercising his natural rights.”
1800-1930: Commerce Comes to Appalachia
After the Civil War, post-war railroad construction opened up Tennessee’s coalfi elds to major mining operations, which created a large demand for cheap labor. Thousands of workers poured into the region to work the Appalachian coal mines. Though the mining industry was booming, it also saw some of the nation’s bloodiest labor strife. Lake City, formerly “Coal Creek,” is known for the famous Coal Creek War, in which miners fought the Tennessee Militia to abolish the use of convict labor. For over a year, the free miners attacked and burned prison stockades and company buildings. Dozens were killed in what’s been described as one of the most dramatic and signifi cant episodes in American labor history. Coal mining was not the area’s only commercial activity. The region contained a seemingly inexhaustible supply of timber. By the 1880s, timber in the Midwestern and Northeastern U.S. had been depleted. This drove logging fi rms to seek out the virgin forests of Appalachia. Later, techniques such as steam-powered loaders allowed massive timber transport from even the most remote sections of Appalachia. Long before timbering and coal mining speckled the backwoods with industrial villages, there were “camps” of unskilled immigrants who came to Appalachia to provide the physical strength needed to operate iron forges and furnaces — a process that refi nes iron ore with a hot fi re to remove impurities. The Newlee Iron Furnace reportedly manufactured most of the iron used in the construction of Chattanooga. The remains of this 1819 relic still stand as a monument to the many iron workers who helped manufacture the iron used to build many great American cities.
1861-1865: War-Torn Appalachia
Southern Appalachia may have been harder hit by the Civil War than any other part of the country. Physically, many homesteads lay right in the middle of military activity. Politically, the region was deeply divided. These separated loyalties created friction among the once powerfully united mountain dwellers. While the war brought destruction, fear and confl ict to the region, assaults by guerillas and marauding soldiers from both sides deepened the devastation. Large numbers of livestock were killed, and many farms were pillaged for food, valuables and liquor. Soldiers and bandits broke into smokehouses, stole horses and burned down houses. The mountains were under constant assault. The actions of both Union and Confederate Armies left many inhabitants in the region resentful and suspicious of government authority. This created a need for the people of Appalachia to defend themselves and planted the seeds for the legendary Appalachian attitude of rebellion toward government and interlopers, known as “frontier defi ance.”
1930s-Today: The End of an Era
Moonshiners continued to make and sell “white whiskey” throughout the Great Depression and into the 1950s and 1960s. Moonshine was transported at night by “bootleggers” in an effort to avoid whiskey tax collectors. The smugglers needed to outrun the law and haul heavy loads of whiskey at the same time, and began modifying their cars with fl athead V-8 engines and superstiff rear suspensions. Their tactics worked, and often left frustrated revenuers eating their dust. The souped-up “stock cars” not only provided a clean getaway vehicle, but a means for recreational racing as well. Dirt tracks and unpatrolled roads in the area were ideal for racing. In the 1930s, this newfound sport made it to Florida beaches, where the stock cars were driven by admitted moonshine runners like Flonty Flock, Lee Petty and Junior Johnson. It was the beginning of today’s NASCAR, one of the fastestgrowing sports in America. In 1958, actor Robert Mitchum produced, co-wrote and starred in a fi lm that paid tribute to the cultural phenomenon of bootlegging. Thunder Road became an instant classic and has endured as one of the most popularly screened fi lms in history. Today the backwoods still is all but a distant memory. The availability of legal, store-bought liquor in previously dry southeastern counties crushed the moonshiners’ ability to make a profi t, but their undercover trade has left an indelible mark on the region’s history and culture.