Part 10: The “Great” Depression

n 1929, there was a textile strike at Marion Manufacturing. Six people were killed by thugs brought in to handle the rabble. One of the victims was Sam Vickers in Dysartsville, according to Richard Buchanan, whose property adjoined his family’s farm. (He mentioned he was going by tax records and couldn’t confirm.) A 22-year-old was arrested when he put a stick of dynamite under the house of his neighbor who was non-union, and the National Guard was called out. Big town excitement in a small county, reflecting the nervous mood of the country. The stock market collapsed on Black Friday, October 19, 1929, ushering in the Great Depression.

Safe in its nest amid the foothills between South Mountain and the Smokies, Brackett Town Road was spared the agony of the dust clouds that swirled over the central plains in the mid 30’s, affecting 100,000,000 acres and uprooting settlers who fled their farms. But the community could not escape the depression.

When Brice was a kid, much of the whole community was African American, and many descended from slave families. “Back during the depression we had a good size farm here, and I got up many a morning, go to the door and there was twenty black people in the yard wantin’ to work. We didn’t hire them. If we dug potatoes that day, they all got a sack of potatoes to take home. If we picked peas, they got peas, with their labor. If we picked corn, they got corn. Whatever we did that day. We didn’t charge them, and they didn’t charge us. And that kept them alive. Our money crop back in those days was sweet potatoes, molasses, black-eyed peas. That’s what they lived off of, what we raised. You didn’t hire ’em, they just come, wantin’ somethin’ to do. Had to eat.”

There were only two black families left in the valley by the 1950’s. When the depression was over, the others went to Detroit or somewhere there were factories so they could work. But here, at least they all had food and shelter. None of the extras, for sure. Brice had to create his own excitement.

Nora told a story on her brother. “In the early 30’s, Dad’s barn burned. He and Mom had gone somewhere and left the kids at home. The two older kids were twelve. They were belly flopping in the green hay. They figured it was just about time for their parents to come home so they better get out of the barn.” Just in time. They heard “a big whoosh! Instantaneous combustion from the hay burned it to the ground. The boys got the mules and the pigs out so it was just the barn that was lost.” The community pulled together and in a week or so they had another barn. The National Guard was not called, nor were the services needed of the first female lawyer in McDowell County, Daphne Spratt of Dysartsville.

Although the Sprouse family never had a still on their property, it wasn’t illegal to make whiskey. And some folks that didn’t have a job, that couldn’t find a job, they made whiskey. There were several distilleries that operated in the early part of the twentieth century, such as Blue Ridge Distillery and Romulus Brown Distillery.

A Still to Remember
A Still to Remember

But when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was signed, alcohol products went underground, and “they started closin’ down stills. There wasn’t any manufacturing of any kind around this end of the county. You had to have a permit to make liquor, and who wanted to give all their profits to the government? So they just slipped around and made it.”

“That’s the reason it was a bad thing. The government was takin’ over their livelihoods, and they were havin’ to pay to live. There was a lot of whiskey made in this area, and we called it bootleggin’. I guess North Carolina was the heart of the bootleggin’ industry. We had the fast cars, and I can remember when that was going’ on because I had to deal with a couple wrecks on the road. They were as wild as rabbits. It finally faded out, but there’s probably one or two stills around somewhere. If somebody has white liquor, there’s gotta be a still out there. But I don’t know anyone now who makes its. Usta be, growin’ up, I knew every bootlegger in the county.”

(Northeast of McDowell County is Wilkes County where the Junior Johnson family of NASCAR fame received first notoriety in the moonshine industry with their fast cars. On the web, you can check out Junior’s recipe for Midnight Moon, “handcrafted legal moonshine.”)

Richard Buchanan lived down the road in a two story white house on property farmed by his family today. He said there was a lot of Vein Mountain moonshine between his farm near Landis Loop and the tunnel, the old gold mining territory. It was mid 50’s when the last still was destroyed. Maybe. You can go on line and do a search for a YouTube video of Popcorn Sutton, maybe the best known moonshiner in western NC, according to those in the know. He’s giving lessons.

So it seemed the government couldn’t handle their liquor. And remember how determined the suffragettes were to get the 19th amendment pushed through? Congress didn’t have any women, and it took a lot of homework, but the law was ratified in 1920. So the government couldn’t handle their women, either. What made them think they could take care of our money? As in welfare and Social Security. The projects built by the WPA, like the Blue Ridge Parkway and all the national parks, were good ideas. I enjoy them often. But I have noticed that often one man’s good fortune is another’s calamity. The logging industry in this part of the country suffered enormous loss of jobs when the wilderness was protected. (I recommend Ron Rash’s novel, Serena.)

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