- May 3, 2020
- Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
Hard times on Wyoming’s ‘baldheaded prairies’ in the Nineteen-teens and –twenties spawned entrepreneurs. Women kept chickens and sold eggs; or kept cows and sold milk, cream and butter, maybe even cheese. Where there was timber, ambitious men often cut posts to sell to homesteaders who had fences to build. Some ambitious men found a sense of pride in making and marketing good whiskey. According to the US Government this was illegal, encouraging brewing entrepreneurs to “work smart”, which in turn caused a number of fur bearing populations the inconvenience of sharing underground space with them. Sometimes they were discovered, as this news clip proves.
SEPTEMBER 20, 1921 – Edgemont Express –FIND SMALL DISTILLERY – A few days ago while cutting corn in a neighbor’s field, Griff Stevens accidentally found a complete still with considerable mash and all evidence led to the fact that it had been operated for some time. He notified the officers in this city who went out and confiscated the entire outfit and brought it to the city. The boiler was an old copper wash boiler with top soldered on with an opening for putting in the mash, and the worm was of small copper pipe, running through an old five-gallon kerosene can which was the cooling system. A small oil stove was used, presumably to do away with tell tale smoke. No arrests have been made but several suspicious persons have been seen in the vicinity.
To avoid making such headlines, distillers strove to keep a good eye out, often posting sentries along rural roads near their places of business. Strange automobiles on remote, little-traveled roads spooked moonshiners – “the Revenooer’s” drove big cars and brought dark doom. Sentry sightings spawned ‘Paul Revere-style’ rescue efforts, as lookouts raced to stills thru the low ground.
Country cut and corrugated by deep draws and creeks caused the few roads automobiles could travel to follow the high ridges, circling around for miles and allowing sentrys a goodly amount of time before strangers could reach an area where a still might be located. Telltale fires were immediately extinguished, even though every precaution was already employed to prevent smoke being seen. If a batch of mash had just been run and time and circumstances allowed, the evidence was rapidly hidden . . . if not it was destroyed and buried.
My maternal grandfather, Missouri born and bred, made some moonshine, taking great pride in the craft. In his 80’s he maintained his product had been the best in the region. A fastidiously clean person, I believe his product would for sure have been the cleanest to be found. A very elderly former neighbor told me of a pact his dad had with my granddad, and of his part in the deal. Their family lived right beside a pretty decent road, used by the rare automobiles traveling through the region, and he’d instructed his son thusly, “If company ever comes in cars and we have them stop to visit, you stick close and listen to the talk. I may at some point make the verbal observation, ‘My, this sure looks like a great day to go fishing!’ If you ever hear me say that, leave the group quietly, slip into cover and get to the barn, grab a horse, keep to the low ground riding as fast as you can to Mr. Coy’s. Immediately when you get there, quietly get his attention – get it even if you have to interrupt something. Tell him your dad thinks it’d be a great day to go fishing.” The old timer said he only carried that message one time, but did it faithfully, however it proved to be a false alarm as the visitors weren’t “revenuers” after all!
Some time later, in the hard times around 1930, Grandad Coy had a still in a different location. His daughter, my Mom, was out horseback, checking on the cattle belonging to her and her husband, riding near a creek-bank so she could see the low ground in case any cattle were there. Riding out on a little point to check up and down the creek her horse kind of slipped, like one foot gave way under him. Looking down Mom discovered the ground was soft, and then noted a pipe protruding a little way above ground close to her. She got back from there quickly. Upon completing her cattle checking and returning home she told her husband she might’ve discovered a moonshine still on the creek, and asked if he had any idea who the moonshiner might be. “You surely ought to have figured out, it’s your Dad,” he replied. That really made Mom mad and she took it out verbally the next time she saw granddad. He laughed at her, said she should’ve figured it out, and why would she be so mad, since she knew he did that sometimes? Her response was that he’d whipped all his kids for lying — and he’d told her in so many words he was ‘going to Montana’….
Speaking of the cleanliness my Granddad Coy practiced in moonshining reminds me of a story written down by lifelong cowboy and rancher of our area, the late Early Lynch. In a tale of experiences working for the 4-W Ranch in Weston County soon after he was out of high school, Earl recalled a runaway horse taking him off a 15’ cut bank into a deep draw near the Cheyenne River. Both survived, he remounted, and while looking for a way out of the cut bank draw he said, “I hadn’t gone 10 feet when I saw a clear glass five gallon jug of whiskey. From there to the river there were jugs of different sizes, all full of whiskey or moonshine as I could tell by the glass jugs. “At the mouth of the draw there was a peninsula about five feet above the river bed about 100’x 50’. There were two fifty gallon wooden barrels buried upright with about four inches of the open top above ground. This was done so they couldn’t be seen across the river. As I looked down in the cloudy mixture I saw some raw potatoes rising and dry peaches came to the top and then sank as it bubbled. It was sure working! I also saw two drowned cottontail rabbits laying alongside. They had just been fished out as they were still soaking wet. In the corner against the bluff, hid from casual views by a big pile of
tumbleweeds was the still. It was a copper contraption of boiler and coils of tubing. It looked like a lot of work and money had been put into it.” When Earl caught up to the herd he told his boss what he’d seen and was told, “Forget it and don’t tell anyone.” He said, “I later knew the two homesteaders who ran the still. When they heard the cows coming they climbed the bluff and hid in the sagebrush. It was impossible to make a living on 640 acres of that land, but with moonshine selling for a dollar a quart at the Rochelle and Clareton dances, they were doing alright.” And the fellows paying those prices probably never thought about rabbits having been drowned in the mash! Earl said he’d often wondered how long those rabbits added their essence to the ‘shine before being discovered and removed….
A young Texas cowboy living in my grandparents’ region was riding ridges checking cattle when he noticed some horseback cowboys making fast tracks some distance away. Apparently carrying heavy loads, they headed for high ground. Curious, he stayed in cover to watch this drama a while. The riders rushed to a sandy ridge under stone outcroppings, then hurriedly buried the loads they’d been toting and rode swiftly away. By their several hasty back-and-forth trips, the cowboy guessed they’d possibly gotten wind of Revenuer’s in the area and buried jugs of their product. A smile creased his face, as inspiration crossed his mind.
The cowboy had read news of a dance at Clareton Hall the following Saturday night, and had made a date for the event with a young woman homesteader of the community, also from Texas. He’d ride by her place on his way to the dance, and she’d accompany him.
Saturday rolled around, and the cowgirl was already mounted on a fine horse when he arrived at her homestead cabin, announcing he had something to discuss with her before they hit the trail for Clareton. After informing her of the scenario he’d witnessed a few days earlier, the chivalrous cowboy inquired if she’d prefer to go to the dance, or to dig up and move the
moonshine cache. He’d brought some big tow sacks tied behind his saddle, just in case…. The spirited cowgirl chose the latter course. Many jugs of moonshine were dis-interred, transported and re-interred in a short period of time! Then the mirthful couple galloped on to the dance, arriving only a little late. An altogether different kind of dance might’ve been observed by the coyotes, hawks and jackrabbits of the region whenever the moonshiners came to retrieve their stash!
About Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns is thankful one grandfather from England and another from Missouri settled in Wyoming . . . that they both became involved with horses, cattle and sheep . . . and that she was bles’t to grow up and continue to live within...