Donna Hechler Porter
Happy National Moonshine Day!
You can tell if you light it, and a blue flame comes up; that means its good moonshine and it won't make you go blind.
Ah . . . moonshine . . . the name conjures up fast cars, illicit alcohol usage, and folks in wide-brimmed, scruffed hats hoisting crock jugs up to their lips and drinking greedily.
So why do we have a holiday dedicated to illicit alcohol use and what does that have to do with family history?
First, a bit about moonshine itself. Moonshine is a high-content liquor that was produced in home-made stills or, at the very least, illegally. It was typically produced at night to avoid detection by local authorities, thus the term moonshine.
And, are you ready for this? It originated in England in the 18th century, not the United States. In fact, the term moonshine was used as early as 1785. There are also a number of other names used interchangeably with moonshine - mountain dew, choop, hooch, homebrew, mulekick, shine, white lightning, white/corn liquor, white/corn whiskey, pass around, firewater, and bootleg.
Moonshine is a basic concoction of corn maize, malted barley, yeast, and water. Sometimes sugar is now added. Different variations can include other ingredients, but the basic process is one of fermentation and distillation. Thus - the use of "whiskey stills" to produce the moonshine.
Imbibing moonshine did pose some risks, mostly due to the equipment being used to produce it. Automotive radiators used as condensers were particularly dangerous because of the glycol produced from the antifreeze. Radiators also contain lead at the connections to the plumbing, and this could result in blindness and/or lead poisoning. Consumption of lead-tainted moonshine oftentimes caused saturning gout, a painful medical condition that damages kidneys and joints.
Sometimes, imbibing moonshine led to deaths with no known cause other than the fact it was stilled in unsafe conditions.
A common folk test at the time, to determine the quality of the moonshine, was to pour a small quantity of it into a spoon and set it on fire. It was believed that a safe distillate burns with a blue flame, and a tainted distillate burns with a yellow flame. If there was lead in the distillate, the flame would burn reddish, and thus the mnemonic, "Lead burns red and makes you dead."
Not all toxic components, however, could be detected by a simple burn test. Methanol flames also burn blue and are difficult to see in daylight. Thus, the danger in drinking moonshine.
In the United States a tax was passed during the Civil War outlawing non-registered stills. Illegal distilling accelerated during Prohibition from 1920-1933. Prohibition, of course, mandated a total ban on alcohol production under the 18th Amendment of the Constitution. The amendment was repealed in 1933, and laws now focus on evasion of taxation and intoxication.
So, what does National Moonshine Day have to do with family history?
About 1915 Dominick Hechler moved to Crosby. He had been born in Russia, but he was of German descent. He left Russia about 1890 and came to the United States. The Russian government had originally offered generous resettlement inducements to Germans to come to her country, but they had, by the time Dominick was a young man, not only taken back many of those favors, but were becoming increasingly hostile toward the Germans. So, about 1890, Dominick and his wife, Elizabeth (Dietz), and two of their children, Vincent and Pete left Russia and came to the United States. Son August followed in 1892, and Dominick Jack, Jr., the fourth and last boy, was born in 1903. Several daughters were born into the family as well.
Dominick first settled at Plantersville, then moved south into Fort Bend county to rice farm. After tiring of that occupation and being wiped out by several gulf storms, he moved north to Crosby in 1915. Already in Crosby were the families (from Russia) of Dietz, Rhombs, and Wagners. He acquired title to 88 acres of land along Krenek Road from Lindstrom Road on the west to Bohemian Hall Road on the east. Five years later, Prohibition was enacted, and some of the sons, at least, began distilling spirits for what was likely a side hustle.
Which ones were involved? I have never gotten a clear answer, but my impression over the years was that it was John, Pete, and August. Dominick Jr., my grandfather, having decided he wanted nothing to do with farming, was working for Exxon by this time and was living in Baytown. But don't hold me to any of this part of the family lore . . . please . . .
Anyway - back to bootlegging . . .
Bootlegging, at the heart of it, was really a matter of economics, and we all know the money to be made in any black market. During Prohibition, especially in rural Appalachia where the vast majority of bootleggers operated, it was difficult and expensive to transport corn crops. Typically, a horse could haul ten times more value on its back in whiskey than in corn, and many people sold moonshine in order to provide for their families. While moonshining could be found in urban areas, it was still typically a rural phenomena because the limited network of roads that made hauling crops difficult and expensive also made it easier for moonshiners to evade law enforcement.
As for the cars, themselves, they were driven by runners or bootleggers who possessed special driving skills in regards to speed and evasion of law enforcement. The cars, while looking ordinary, were outfitted with souped-up engines for speed and heavy-duty shock absorbers to support the illicit alcohol load. The interior was made more roomy, and in the case of the Hechlers, at least, the story is told they could take out the kegs and bootleg paraphernalia and replace the back seats in a matter of seconds. By the time law enforcement arrived, which had likely been hot on their trail, they were standing by a perfectly reasonable looking vehicle and there was no evidence of moonshine or moonshining anywhere.
Prohibition ended in 1933, and with it most of the illegal bootlegging came to an end. The Hechlers, the story goes, buried their whiskey still somewhere on the property along Krenek Road. Where, is anyone's guess. Apparently, the location was kept a secret for fear of law enforcement still coming after them.
And what happened to the runners (those that drove the cars)? These now out-of-work drivers kept their skills sharp through organized races. These races led to the formation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. That's right - NASCAR. Several former bootleggers and runners became noted drivers in the sport.
So, is moonshine still illegal today?
Yes, it is. But a quick perusal of the internet will yield all kinds of recipes for the drink. You can even find directions for making home-made stills, which today, vary in style and structure much more than they did during Prohibition and the Hechler's time. So, I'm not certain just how illegal that actually makes moonshine these days.
As for the origins of National Moonshine Day, they are as obscure as the Hechler legend which has been told and retold. No one knows for sure who started it or exactly what year it was first celebrated, just as no one is quite sure which Hechlers were involved in bootlegging nor where the still was hidden when it was no longer being used.
I guess some things are just best left buried.