American Whiskey:

May 2, 2003
Catoctin National Park:
Okay, so it's not quite the
Blue Blazes still...
But it could have been its great-great-grandfather

FARMERS BEGAN SETTLING the area around Frederick County, Maryland as early as 1734, and until the United States Congress passed the 1791 Excise Tax laws, just about every farm had its own whiskey-distilling apparatus. Even afterwards, it was perfectly legal to own and operate a still -- provided you registered it with the Federal government and paid the tax. It wasn't until passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 that mere possession of distilling equipment became a crime. Problem was, in the 18th century, even if an individual farmer were conscientious about registering his farm's tiny single still, he had no way to obtain money to pay the tax with. Most of what a farmer received for selling his surplus crop was in the form of traded goods and services, and the law required the tax to be paid in United States currency. The only distillers who could dependably obtain currency were those producing whiskey on a large enough scale to sell it commercially. Of course there were  farmers who chose to continue making whiskey without bothering to register and pay taxes, but over time most found it not too inconvenient to take their grain to a nearby commercial distillery.

The farmers who continued distilling ("by the light of the moon") their own produce for their own use during the late 18th and early 19th centuries were simply dealing with an unworkable situation as best they could. They were also upholding a long colonial tradition of ignoring laws that didn't suit them. The onset of National Prohibition in 1919, though, brought an entirely new and different type of distiller into such hard-to-find places as the Catoctin Mountains around Thurmont, Maryland.  These whiskeymakers were not distilling for subsistence; they were producing spirits illegally on a large scale, for profit. The going price for "white lightening" quickly went from around two dollars a gallon to twenty-two. According to a National Park Service publication, distilling alcohol became big business in the Catoctin mountains. The mountain provided a secluded protected area with ready sources of water. Meanwhile, using nearby roads, moonshiners could ship their product to Baltimore or Washington within a couple of hours. Very quickly, local moonshine gained a national reputation, and one might by surprised at how well-known was the high quality of Catoctin moonshine, even as far away as New York City.

The authorities, of course, took a dim view of moonshining. The Frederick County sheriff's department mounted a series of raids on stills nestled in the mountains between Thurmont and Foxville. One of those sites, known as Blue Blazes, was set near Harman's Creek, five miles west of Thurmont. The Frederick Post reported that Blue Blazes Still was "one of the largest and best equipped in Frederick County" It was a "steamer" type of still, with a boiler from a steam locomotive, two condensing coils, a cooling box, and no less than thirteen 2,000-gallon fermenting vats. The operation was large enough to meet the illegal whiskey needs of Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. It earned both it's eternal notoriety and its demise during a tragic raid in July of 1929 that resulted in the murder of a deputy sheriff. The National Park Service has a well-detailed story at this location.

There is not a trace left of the original moonshine distillery, of course, but in 1970 the Park Service built a mountain distillery exhibit on the site, with a working model of a much smaller still. That is, it WAS a working model. The Park Service doesn't actually fire it up anymore, but they used to until around 1989. Today, they only tell stories, and even then, only occasionally. But at least they recognize the existence of both whiskeymaking and moonshining and their importance to the history of American people. The display, located outdoors in a natural setting,  has been put together quite nicely. The still itself is very small, about a 50-gallon-capacity unit. It looks the way most people would imagine a hillbilly moonshine still to look; what you might see in Li'l Abner or on The Beverly Hillbillies. That's a far cry from the original Blue Blazes, which looked like a train wreck and produced batches of  2,000 gallons at a time. The exhibit is really a better example of the sort of personal still a 19th century farmer might have used as general farm equipment, and that, rather than glorifying the actual Blue Blazes criminal site, was probably their intent. As such, it's a very good display. We only wish it were still huffing and puffing.

The notorious excise tax of 1791 that brought about the Whiskey Rebellion really only lasted for eleven years. During that time, individual farm stills such as the one we see here at Catoctin may have been operated illegally in the sense of being unlicensed, but more and more distilling, even by small farmers, was being done by larger (and licensed) distillers or as a service offered by the grain mills. Thus, by 1802, when newly-elected president Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax, most farmers were already enjoying the advantages of patronizing commercial distillers and continued to favor using them.

The small distillery operated in Perryopolis by Israel Shreve was basically the same kind of distillery as this one, only set up indoors in a stone building. It's likely that the family still that Abraham Overholt's father operated at their West Overton farm was also similar in size and style. Shreve's distillery was associated with his grist mill, and provided distilling services for a fee. Overholt's began that way, but around 1810 son Abraham transformed the operation into one that focused on wholesaling the whiskey itself as an end product. The new trend among commercial distillers was to redefine the grain farmer as a vendor, rather than as a customer. Instead of paying to have his grain made into whiskey, the farmer could now take his grain to the distillery or mill and get cash for it. This was a win-win situation that continued even after the excise tax no longer existed.

Individual farm distilleries like this one might have vanished altogether then, except for three factors...

(1)   Of course there were always (and still are) some subsistence farmers whose products serve their immediate family or can be used for limited trade with bartering partners. However, since subsistence farmers normally cherish their independence from the general community, their distilling equipment and methods didn't have a great deal of effect upon American whiskey distilling as a whole.

(2)  Another distilling trend that was gaining favor involved companies that would purchase farmers' distilled product directly and then vat them all together, adjusting as needed to compensate for differences in strength and quality. This is exactly the way such other agricultural organizations as dairy or fruit cooperatives worked and still do. In such cases, of course, the individual farmers retained and operated their small stills, selling only their end product to the distillery.

(3)  The tax-free status of whiskeymaking ended with the onset of the Civil War, and has never returned since then. Once the excise taxes were returned to the equation, the cost advantages of illicit production make moonshining profitable. It was really this period between the Civil War and the beginning of prohibition in the 1920s from which we get most of our popular images about the hillbilly moonshiners. Once the production of alcohol was outlawed altogether, the bootleg still of the '20s and '30s was a much different affair, typically far larger and operated by far less reputable distillers than had been the case earlier. Nevertheless, there were stealth advantages in the type of small, easily set up and taken down operation the old-style farm still provided. Thus, many of the old pot stills and worms we find in museums, including the still here at Catoctin and the one displayed at Shreve's, are really old moonshiners' equipment that might have been still in use in the 1960s.

Click here and we'll visit the 1790s distillery operated in Pennsylvania by Israel Shreve...

.Reconstruction of Israel Shreve's 1790 Distillery

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Story and original photography copyright © 2003 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.