By Kimberly Brigance, Clarke Otten and Michael Hitt
How about a little moonshine to go with the spring sunshine? A shocking question today, but perhaps not too uncommon a one in Sandy Springs’ past.
In addition to countless customs and cuisine that the Scots-Irish brought with them to America, they also brought a tradition that would help fund the American Revolution and unknowingly, create one of the most popular sports in the world.
Since most of the Scots-Irish could not afford land in the established settlements of the American Colonies, they were pushed to the furthest fringes of the frontier, where land was less expensive, but the danger from Native American attack was greater. The rich farm land gave them ample opportunity to grow grain, but instead of the wheat, barley and rye that dominated the European diet, the settlers grew corn.
Large harvests of corn should have translated into riches for the farmers, but poor roads and huge transportation costs meant that carrying the bulky grain to market was a losing proposition. Luckily, the Scots-Irish knew how to convert the perishable grain into easily transportable, non-perishable, highly profitable alcohol.
Soon, moonshine was so common that it was used as currency.
After the American Revolution, the new government was anxious to find a way to pay for the expensive war and get the country on its financial feet. Taxing moonshine seemed like an easy and obvious choice, but this did not sit well with people that had just fought a war over taxation.
The Whiskey Rebellion threatened to overthrow the government before it had barely started. George Washington’s troops ended the episode, but not the production of untaxed, and therefore illegal, moonshine.
By the mid-1800s northern Georgia and the area of Sandy Springs had been settled for several decades.
With the settlers had come the illegal stills. Names in the local landscape like Still and Gin’s Creek may reflect a moonshining heritage.
The historic record is certainly not silent about the names and numbers of stills that were active in our community. In July 1889 Providence Church (later First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs) adopted the following resolution: “Whereas, we hear that there is to be erected near our church a distillery, and
“Whereas, it may be possible that some of our members having fruit may patronize said distillery,
“be it therefore resolved, that we advise them to have nothing to do with said distillery in any way whatsoever.”
The most productive area for moonshine was northern Georgia. Various statewide and local liquor prohibition laws meant that there was always a ready profit for those willing to risk arrest, and the largest profits could be made by those willing to sell to the thirsty citizens of Atlanta.
Bootleggers from Dawsonville and all across northern Georgia raced down the Ga. 9 to Atlanta in specially outfitted cars. Today we call Ga. 9 Roswell Road, but up until World War II it was known far and wide as “Thunder Road” for its police chases and blazing fast hot rods.
Runners built their reputations and fortunes by outsmarting and outdriving law enforcement. Often for bragging rights, runners held races to determine which of their cars was the fastest.
In 1927, Police Review Magazine described Roswell Police Chief John Hood by saying, “chasing liquor cars gives him more excitement than any other incident connected with his official duties. He has captured several cars with over 100 gallons of illicit joy juice loaded in them.”
In fact, a captured bootlegger’s car, a Ford touring car, was the first unofficial police vehicle in Roswell. Then-Officer Hood seized the car after three Atlanta men stopped in Roswell to gas up the vehicle, according to a contemporary newspaper account. The car carried 20 gallons of “white lightning,” the newspaper reported.
By the end of the 1940s, Prohibition had long since ended, but the car races continued. They became an organized sport.
On Dec. 14, 1947, standard rules for racing were established in Daytona Beach, Fla., and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was born.
Today, traffic clogs and snarls Roswell Road to a stand-still. Ironically the only ones “riding lighting down ‘Thunder Road’ ” are fire-rescue and police vehicles.
Kimberly Brigance is the curator of the Heritage Sandy Springs Museum, 6075 Sandy Springs Circle. This article is based, in part, on materials from the museum’s collection. To contact her, e-mail email@example.com.
Clarke Otten, a resident of Sandy Springs since 1953, is writing a book on the history of Sandy Springs.
Michael Hitt, a Roswell police officer, serves as historian for the Roswell Preservation Commission and has published several local history books and articles.