‘Thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons of moonshine’: How Virginians responded to Prohibition

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Film clips are projected on a wall at the Library of Virginia (LVA). They show hold ups, and agents knocking over barrel after barrel.

The time was Prohibition, when the illegal moonshine business was booming in Virginia.

“It was being made everywhere, and the demand was everywhere,” says Gregg Kimball, the LVA Director of Public Services and Outreach.

The film clips are just part of the LVA’s exhibition, ‘Teetotalers & Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled.’ It also includes bottles, stills and records of everything from prices for a pint of whiskey to which areas had the highest number of arrests.

“We’re just trying to explore why Virginians decided to go dry and to eliminate alcohol and what were the consequences of that,” says Kimball.

Prohibition started in Virginia in 1916, four years earlier than the rest of the country.

Barbara Batson, the LVA Exhibitions Coordinator, says essentially an uproar from farmers started the illegal trade in Virginia. Fermenting they had done for generations to make extra money was all of a sudden outlawed.

“When Prohibition came in and said, ‘Eh, can’t make anymore apple cider, hard cider, can’t make any moonshine, can’t do this anymore.’ I think the farmers just went, ‘Wait a minute. We just lost half of our income.’ You get a beginning of an underground industry that just keeps growing and growing and growing throughout Prohibition.”

With only fifteen Prohibition agents across the Commonwealth, policing was largely left up to neighbors.

“The moonshiner might be the brother of the sheriff, and the community, in many cases, weren’t really looking forward to convicting their neighbors,” Kimball describes one common scenario in small town Virginia during Prohibition.

Places like Henry, Pittsylvania and Franklin Counties were hot spots for activity.

Kimball points out a list showing the hot rods of the time period that Prohibition agents drove. High-speed chases in rural areas even led to the birth of a modern-day sport.

“They had to have fast cars because they were trying to catch moonshiners who also really had fast cars,” Kimball says about the agents. “And so you have someone like Wendell Scott, a very famous African American NASCAR driver, one of the first, who went from a moonshine runner to a NASCAR driver.”

While producing moonshine typically happened in the country, even the most cosmopolitan areas of Richmond were not immune to the trade.

“Richmond’s not manufacturing as much as it’s, they’re imbibing,” explains Batson. “So they’re supporting this underground industry. A lot of the arrests in Richmond are actually arrests for possession or driving under the influence.”

Those types of arrests were also popular in Norfolk, where the naval base and port were centers of activity, according to Batson.

Virginia was dry for 17 years, but men and women fought it with an arsenal the best way they knew how.

“Thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons of moonshine,” Batson says.

‘Teetotalers & Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled’ is open at the LVA through December 5, the day when Prohibition officially came to an end in 1933. It is free and open to the public during library hours.

The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Distillers Association helped the LVA produce the exhibition.

To coincide with the exhibition, the LVA worked with Three Notch’d Brewing Company to produce an imperial brown ale. The second batch will be released in November.

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