By La Viece Moore-Fraser Smallwood
No one is certain when illegal whiskey was first
,made in Baker County, but it was probably
long before anyone living today was born.
The industry is not just a backwoods affair. it
has a history that extends all the way to
the White House.
As early as 1794 there was a whiskey rebellion in America
brought about by a federal tax imposed in 1791. The rebellion was led by angry farmers who found it more profitable to turn much of their corn and rye crop into whiskey which, they contended, was much easier to ship to markets than bulky grain. After several people were killed, President George Washington sent in troops to stop the rebellious farmers who protested arrests made by federal marshals trying to collect whiskey taxes. The Whiskey Rebellion was an early 'testing ground' on the use of federal power to enforce a federal law within a state.
During the 1870s an association of whiskey manufacturers and
high government officials formed a whiskey ring and banded together
to cheat the government of taxes imposed on distilled liquors. The
7 Whiskey Ring was one of the great political scandals of the Ulysses S. Grant administration because the chief clerk in the Department of the Treasury and President Grant's personal secretary were among the
conspirators. The Treasury Department lost millions of dollars in liquor revenue, but eventually traced and convicted many of the ring leaders.
As settlers ambled into Baker County they hoped to make an honest living sustaining their families by growing crops and raising livestock,
but mother nature, the boll-weevil, hookworms, and the Great Depression were among the stumbling blocks the settlers faced. As time advanced, the making of illegal whiskey afforded the farmers food for their tables and clothes for their backs. The people who worked in the art and profession became known as moonshiners. By day most farmers plowed their fields and planted their crops and by the light of the silvery moon, they made moonshine. This is their story.
In the '20s,'30s, and '40s, moonshine was primarily made by hard-
working farmers who supplemented their livelihood by crudely brewing
homemade whiskey with river water and homemade cane syrup or
honey when sugar wasn't available or affordable. it wasn't considered immoral, but was recognized as illegal, and no more so than some folks, by today's standards, who'fudge' a little on their income tax.
Moonshine was made to drink and to supplement income, in the
beginning. it was usually sold around turpentine camps and local bars. The term bootlegger emerged when it was hauled out of the county, first by horse and wagon, river travel, or on horse back. The industry grew and expanded over each decade and with each new generation.
World War II changed the industry. Most farmers quit the business
when state and federal lawmen began to invade the area and destroy
their primitive stills. However, after the war a new generation found ways to speed the illegal industry and advanced to a more elaborate system of making shine. it was hauled from Baker County in semi trucks and the county's reputation spread across the state and north and south. Things began to get out of control.
By the 1950s, some Baker County citizens banded together to find
a way to clean up the county and end the notorious reputation it had
acquired as the 'Shine Capitol of the State'.
In a Florida Times-Union article on Wednesday, March 24, 1954,
headlines that blazed across page 25 screamed to the public,
'Baker County Sheriff Given 30 Days to Clean Up County'.
After a five-hour public hearing in Tallahassee, Acting Gov. Charlie
Johns, charging neglect of duty, had issued an ultimatum to the county's sheriff, Asa Coleman. "You have thirty days to clean up the county or be suspended."
Governor Johns told the Baker sheriff, "Sheriff, I've weighed the testimony very carefully. I'm convinced you're honest but you just let law enforcement go in Baker County. As you know, I've tried to see that the people are protected. I want to tell you right now -- I'll give you 30 days to clean up Baker County. If you clean up in 30 days and don't let (blank) and (blank) run the county -- I won't remove you."
The article continued, 'Sheriff Coleman, who was appointed to
office by Gov. Spessard Holland in 1942 and since has won four elections, told Johns at the hearing that 'I thought I was doing a good job ... I have had no complaints.'
The Governor asked Coleman, 'Don't you think that you can get
out and get some of those moonshine still operators?' Coleman
answered, "if you give me a chance I'll do my best, but I'll have to put on more men."
Former State Rep. B.R. Burnsed of Macclenny wound up the
defense argument by mentioning the maxim, 'The least governed is the
best governed' in saying to the Governor, 'I do not think you believe in the overthrow of local self government."
State Rep. John J. Crews, Jr. of Baker County took issue and said, "I resent the fact and intimation that the people of Baker County favor notorious bootlegging and gambling."
Crews, who did not testify, but was asked for remarks, said it was
"tragic that a group of notorious bootleggers and bolita peddlers have caused a strong-hearted man to be called before you. I hope the governor instructs the sheriff to take a more active part in law enforcement."
The acting governor said he was in favor of self government,
"but when self government breaks down and law enforcement is
flaunted in our face, it is time for the governor's office to do something about it."
Frank W Watt of Jacksonville, a federal beverage agent, testified
that Baker County in 1953 accounted for 47 percent of the stills seized in the 15-county Jacksonville district. The figures, he said, were 114 stills in Baker County and 241 in the district.
In four days last January, he said, the federal government
destroyed 21 moonshine stills.
Another state witness, Beverage Dept. Agent Phillip Y. Tomberlin,
said he swore out a warrant for one law violator and Sheriff Coleman did not arrest the fugitive for almost a year.
Baker County Judge J.C. Lyons testified that the man was in
Baker county, that he made a tobacco crop during the time the arrest
was pending and even came to the courthouse for purchase of an
The county judge also said the sheriffs office, located down the
hall in the courthouse, "is not kept open regularly." In response to a question, Lyons said, "I do not believe it is kept open at all during the week. It's open maybe two or three times a month."
Asked if there had been any gambling arrests in Baker County
recently, the county judge said, 'About three years ago they arrested a darky and he posted $ 100 bond and estreated it.'
Charles Ross, a Beverage Dept. investigator, said the sheriff's
records showed that his office had made a total of eight arrests for moonshining during 1953. He said he was in Baker County five days and never saw the sheriff.
Other investigators had similar reports.
Asked why they and other Alcohol and Tax Division agents did not
include Sheriff Coleman in their raids, investigator Spinks said, "We do not call on the sheriff because we are afraid the information would spread and the violator could not be apprehended."
State Trooper Ralph L. Hays told of the arrest of a Negro, Curtis
Bones, in Baker County. In the trunk of Bones' car, he said were six
five-gallon jugs. He pulled the stopper on one and determined by smell that it contained moonshine.
He took Bones' car key, jailed the Negro and left the locked car
within a fence around the Baker County jail. When he and a beverage
agent examined the 'evidence' the following morning, he said all six jugs contained water.
He testified that Bones, when arrested, told him 'to call Mr.
Coleman or Mr. Barton (later identified as Deputy Sheriff James A. Barton) and they would say he was all right."
In his own defense, Sheriff Coleman testified that he was from a
small county, with 5,300 people and 375,000 acres. His income last year was $5,500 from the sheriffs office, he said.
"My wife keeps my set of books at the Macclenny Cash Store,"
he said. I am in and out of the office all week. I have a two-way radio system and can be contacted at all times. I am on call 24 hours of the day."
Coleman said that, "in the last six or eight years no beverage agent
has asked for aid. I have no facilities to locate stills, but I am willing to cooperate."
As for the year-long fugitive, he testified that the county judge
had informed him the paper's were outdated and 'not to bother.'
During the testimony, Gov. Johns asked him, "Why is there so
much moonshine in Baker County?"
Coleman replied that the area was "thinly populated and full of
swamps and ponds. You can't keep them out."
Witnesses testifying as to the sheriffs character and law enforcement efforts were Deputy Barton, Macclenny Chief of Police I.J. Hudson, Arthur Raulerson of Sanderson, former Macclenny Mayor B.J. Padgett, and Ray Dinkins, Macclenny oil distributor.
In the final arguments, Hodges, one of the sheriffs attorneys, said
that "The grand jury is the remedy if law violations are open and notorious. The true remedy is at the polls, not here," he said.
And to the polls it was. The citizens turned out in droves in 1956.
The race was on to elect either a political newcomer, Ed Yarbrough, a county native from Taylor, or deputy sheriff James Barton, serving under the present sheriff, Asa Coleman, who did not seek re-election.
Yarbrough took to the backwoods with a fiddle in one hand
and a campaign promise in the other, to 'clean up the county of illegal activities.'
During the campaign a circular was distributed to the county citizens days before the election. (See copy at end of this article. [graphics omitted]
Yarbrough won the election, not by a landslide, but nonetheless,
he won. A January 11, 1957 Florida Times Union article reported the
30-year-old sheriffs election and goal: 'He hopes to rid Baker county of its reputation as 'the moonshine capital of Florida'.'
The new sheriff announced the appointment of Wilbur Mobley as
deputy, James A. Shuler and Lawton Connor as jailers, and Mrs. Margaret Sharman as office secretary.
On January 14th the Florida Times Union reported,
'Baker County Sheriff Ed Yarbrough today announced the seizure
of three moonshine stills and the arrest of two men during his first week in office.
Yarbrough was assisted by a county native who was now a State
In February the Jacksonville Journal touted a photograph of the
new sheriff and headlined,
NEW SHERIFF USES LIGHT SHOES TO CATCH MOONSHINERS ON THE RUN.
"Don't make me sound like a crusader," said Yarbrough.
"Just say that I am a member of a progressive group of citizens who are determined to clean up the reputation of Baker County."
The article reported that Yarbrough felt his major problem
was the rehabilitation of the citizens engaged in moonshine operations.
"I sincerely feel that moonshine in Baker County was
overestimated in the past. It was going on all-right but not to the
extent that Baker County was the operating base and capital of the
moonshine industry, as it was called by law officers and newspapers
"I don't think Baker County is entitled to that reputation
when the figures of the State Beverage Department indicate that, in
capacity, the Baker moonshine operations were not as large as some
other Northeast Florida counties. Even the beverage investigators of
Florida and the Internal Revenue Service know for a fact that the situation has been more serious in some sections of South Georgia.
"The good people of Baker county have had more than
their share of embarrassment from the reputation given their county."
The Journal article reported Yarbrough's chasing a 'fleet-footed
moonshiner' dashing for freedom, with Yarbrough in pursuit.
The sheriff had one big advantage over his opponent, reported the
article, 'He was wearing his canvass basketball shoes.'
Yarbrough told the Journal reporter, Harry Crown, that on the day
of his election, word got around Baker County that he would have to catch the stills within the next week or 10 days or he wouldn't catch them at all.
What the moonshiners meant was, that as soon as the mash now
fermenting was ready to run, the liquor would be run off and the stills moved out of Baker County, he said.
Yarbrough said hunters came to his office giving directions to
stills, but by the time he reached the locations, the stills had vanished.
He said that most of the operations were being moved across
the St. Mary's River in the Big Bend area (that part of Georgia which penetrates into North Florida).
"Traffic in moonshine is avoiding Baker County like the plague."
In July of 1957 The Baker County Press headlined,
TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT BAKER COUNTY.
It was written by a Journal correspondent Sam McGarvey. The
article reported that the county, long known as the 'moonshine capital of Florida,' shackled with a bad reputation, was now growing and prospering. Moonshine has been virtually wiped out, the school system reorganized, a hospital is nearly completed, FHA insured homes are being built, a recreation program is planned, construction started on a big state hospital--and lots more.
One of the leaders in the reconstruction campaign, former
Senator Ed Fraser, sums it up well, the article read.
"Baker County has taken a big step forward. Some things which
were only a dream a few years ago are a reality now. And there's more to come."
City Manager W.F. Wells stated that the big change in Baker
County just didn't happen. It was planned that way. He said that a few years ago, a group of responsible citizens met to analyze the situation and plan a campaign for community betterment.
"The law abiding citizens were concerned and determined to
wipe out the moonshining and make their county a better place," said
Continuing, the article quoted Baker County Representative
John J. Crews as saying, "One road block to the goal was that bootlegging and moonshining were an accepted part of the county's economy. The county was held down a number of years under a group of law violators, until it was a syndicated moonshine operation and the people accepted it under the false idea that illicit liquor traffic was contributing to the livelihood of many persons. But you cannot build a community without the foundation of decency and strict law enforcement," he said.
In the original meetings held by citizens to 'clean up the county', the article explained that the people and their leaders took a critical look at Baker County and Macclenny.
"They saw that they had other problems, in addition to a lack of
law enforcement. We decided to clean house from top to bottom, before trying to interest industry and new residents." said Wells. "we needed better schools, adequate medical facilities, zoning, recreation and FHA financing, or, in short, just what people look for when they inspect a city as a future home," he added. Clean up of the moonshine operations was basic.
The article reported that the election of a new sheriff and the
beginning of clean- up operations was a big step. A startling factor of success was the convictions of moonshiners by juries.
In the first trial, States Attorney T.E. Duncan, in summing up to the jury, said quietly: "The question for you to decide today is whether you are going to believe the defendant, or whether you are going to believe the sheriff."
Eight minutes after the jury retired, it returned with a verdict of
guilty as charged.
Sheriff Yarbrough, World War II Air Force veteran, married an
father of two children, credits state and federal agents with complete co-operation in his drive to wipe out illicit whiskey, the article stated.
He praises the public, too: "The people have supported me moraly," he said.
The sheriff also credits the law making possession of over a gallon
of moonshine a felony, instead of a misdemeanor, as one of the factors his successful drive. The bill was sponsored in the '55 Legislature by Ed Fraser and Rep. John Crews.
(An interview with former sheriffs E. Ed Yarbrough and the
Asa Coleman can be found in Volume I of once Upon A Lifetime in Baker County Florida. The two men admitted their past hatred of one another and recanted how their conversions to the Lord turned that hate eventally to one of love and respect In 1979, on the shores of the south Prong of the Little St. Mary's River, the Rev. Asa Coleman baptized his former rival, E. Ed Yarbrough.)
The following interviews are the personal accounts of a few of the
men and women who were directly involved in the controversial
moonshine industry of Baker County. Permission for the use of most names of individuals mentioned in the accounts have been obtained unless the names appear in a news article that has been previously published.
"IT HAPPENED THIS A WAY"
Marcus Gene Thrift
If ever there was an all American boy, it was Marcus Gene
Thrift. If ever shock waves traveled throughout Baker County, it was
when he was tragically killed while returning home one night from
hauling a load of whiskey.
What made this outstanding, intelligent, respected, and popular young man resort to something he really didn't stand for or believe
in? We may never know, but this is his story as told by many who
knew him best and loved him most. After 40 years, memories of
Marcus Gene Thrift continue to live on for many, and it's like one of his classmates said recently, "His memory is so vivid that it is just as if we had been together yesterday."
Marcus Gene Thrift's watch stopped on April 8, 1955, at 12
o'clock midnight. So did his heart.
As mangled as the car he was driving, so were the hearts in
Baker County. The close-knit community had watched the
All-Conference Wildcat Quarterback prance out onto the lighted football field for four years amid glaring lights and screaming fans. The team's co-captain was their hero.
As he dribbled the ball for four years up and down the slick,
polished floor of the Macclenny-Glen High School gymnasium, every
hair on his head was in place, and it stayed that way, as the
All-Conference, point guard basketball player thrilled fans with his winning streak.
Just as effectively, he played shortstop on the school's baseball team.
"Marcus Gene was a very special person, well-loved by everyone who knew him," said Ann Piatt Tharpe, a classmate. "He had a
great personality always smiling and fun to be with. I never heard him put anyone down, or knew him to drink alcohol, use tobacco in any
form, or use profanity in any way. He was just a good all-round guy
who had a lot of friends. I still miss him today, and I never knew of anyone who didn't like him. I couldn't believe it when I heard about it, and even today, it's hard for me to believe it happened.
"And I can't help but wonder," she said, "what kind of person
he would be today, and what he would be doing. I think he would
have done a lot of good had he lived."
Marcus was born August 9, 1934, to Earl and Doris Combs Thrift
who farmed in the Georgia Bend area. For the first two years of
Marcus's life, he and his parents lived with his paternal grandparents, Jode and Caroline (Raulerson) Thrift.
By the time he was in the fifth grade, WW II was raging in
Europe, and school teachers were scarce in Georgia. His parents, concerned about his education, boarded him in Macclenny with his aunt
and uncle, Josie and Daisy Thrift, who sent him to school under the
watchful eye of fifth-grade teacher Gladys Crews. Their only child's
absence from their home grew too hard to bear, so the couple moved
to Macclenny and never returned to Georgia. They eventually built a
home on Highway 228 North where Marcus lived the rest of his life.
Earl Thrift was one of 13 children born to Jode and Caroline during a time of mounting poverty that climaxed with The Great
Depression era. The family turned to brewing moonshine to help with
necessities. Doris's father, Joel Combs, sustained their family of seven children by making moonshine. And Doris remembers those times
"The Sheriff used to call and let daddy and all that bunch out
there at Taylor know when the revenuers was coming. I was about 11
or 12 years old and since I was the fastest runner in the family, Mama would always say, 'Run, tell your daddy that they're coming.' Then all the men would gather at the Taylor store and be looking for them when they rode by," she said.
"I used to pump water for daddy to keep the coil or something
or other cool. Me and my sister-in-law, Daisy, used to go with the
buyers in the woods to show them where the shine was hid. They'd
load it up and tear out with it. People wasn't scared to make it, back then, and to us it was just an exciting thing to do."
While Marcus was growing up, his father worked at local service stations and occasionally hauled some shine to supplement his
By the time Marcus was in the sixth grade, he was showing
signs of being industrious. He came home one day and announced to
his parents that someone down town had a shoe shine business and
they wanted to sell it for $12. His mother remembers the incident well.
"He said, 'I'd like to buy it but I don't have the money' so Earl's
mama called him over to the side and said, 'Come here, son, now don't tell the rest I gave you this,' and she gave Marcus the money. He was adored by his grandparents,." she said.
While 12-year-old Marcus shined shoes in front of Lautice
Dugger's Barber Shop on Main Street, he would also sell boiled peanuts to passers-by. When the Greyhound Bus stopped at Power's Sundry, Marcus was standing there to sell bags of peanuts to passengers.
"He did real good and made enough money that he seldom
ever asked us for any," said his mother.
As he grew older, he worked afternoons and on weekends at
the local pool room owned by Dolice Rhoden.
He excelled in sports, and was a popular player on the Wildcat team.
"His daddy had never seen a football game until he went to see
Marcus play," said his mother. "I had seen one once when my daddy
moved our family to Jasper and I was a cheerleader. I remember
Marcus only weighed 110 pounds and I didn't think they'd put him in
the game, but they did. He made a touchdown that very first time,
but me and Earl didn't know it. We saw him lying out there on the
field and Earl jumped the fence to go to him. I remember Mike
Gazdick told Earl, 'He's not hurt, he just got the breath knocked out of him, he'll be alright.' And he was."
In 1950, Doris Thrift gave birth to a baby girl, Vicki. Marcus was
proud of his sister.
When he graduated from high school in June of 1953, he was
elected 'Most Athletic' and 'Most Popular' by his classmates. His father
made a down payment on a new Chevrolet and gave it to his son.
Hugh Griffin, owner of the local Chevrolet Dealership, gave Marcus a
job, but soon business became slack and Marcus was out of work.
Hugh even took him to Jacksonville trying to help him find work, but
jobs were scarce, especially for the untrained. For a while he worked in the office for the railroad in Baldwin, but once again when business was slow, he was laid off. He finally found a job in Jacksonville working for an oil company inspecting service stations in need of repairs or painting. But that job was not steady either.
With regular employment a problem, the prospect of making a
few extra dollars by hauling an occasional load of moonshine was
enticing, explained his mother. After all, his father did it, as did many of his relatives, friends and neighbors. And his car payments had to be made.
In March of 1955, he married his high school sweetheart, a popular senior at Macclenny-Glen High School. Until her graduation in
June, and until he could find a steady job, they made their home with his parents. While he was out of work, he hauled a few loads of
moonshine for Jule Rhoden. He told his mother he needed the money.
In March of 1955, he and his new bride gave his sister, Vicki, a
birthday party to celebrate her fifth birthday. on that occasion, he
presented his sister a little gold chain with a heart. Then he told his
mother to take some of his money that she kept for him, and take
Vicki to town to buy her an Easter outfit.
'Buy yourself one too, Mama,' he told her.
On the afternoon of April 8, after hauling a load of whiskey for
Jule Rhoden, he told his mother that he could make more money hauling whiskey for himself instead of someone else.
I'll be back about 9 p.m., he said. He left while his wife of three
weeks was attending classes, and headed up through Georgia.
"It was his first load for himself," said his mother. "I didn't want
Marcus to do it, but he said he needed the money."
No one may ever know what really happened, but out there on
the dark and nearly deserted stretch of Highway 441, three miles south of Homerville, Marcus Gene Thrift met a semi head-on as it rounded a curve. He died instantly.
'I think Marcus went to sleep," said his mother. "He had on an
ID bracelet and maybe that's how they identified him. I really don't
know, but the Georgia authorities phoned Sheriff Asa Coleman, and
since we didn't have a phone, he phoned our neighbor Wallace Dupree,
whose wife Dorothy is kin to me. They got some of our neighbors
together and they came over about three o'clock in the morning to tell us.
"I heard them call and went to the door. I heard Dorothy say,
'Open the door, Aunt Doris.'
"When I opened the door and saw them, I said, 'Oh no, don't tell
me, Marcus Gene got killed didn't he? And that's the last I remember."
The days that followed are blurred for Doris and Earl Thrift.
They brought their son's body home, where he lay before his funeral
service on Easter Day. The First Baptist Church in Macclenny was filled to overflowing and crowds of friends stood outside. The funeral procession to Taylor Cemetery was one of the longest in Baker County's history. Grown men and women mourned, classmates and friends
wept openly. Vicki, wearing her new dress from her brother and the
cherished little gold necklace, nervously bit the little heart during the funeral service and it left two tiny teeth marks, a reminder 40 years later of her grief.
"Losing Marcus was like losing a member of my own family,"
said his longtime friend, former teacher and coach, Mike Gazdick. "He
played outstanding sports and was the recipient of many awards. He
never missed practice and was a role model for all the students.
Marcus never used foul language, was an above-average student. He
was always willing to assist anyone in need. He was always well
dressed and well groomed. He never criticized others, never used alcohol or narcotics. He was always considerate of others and had respect for his teachers, coaches and fellow students. I'll always miss Marcus," he said.
Fellow classmate Maurice Prevatt remembers playing sports
with Marcus from 1949 until their graduation in 1953. "He was one of
the most gifted athletes that ever came out of Baker County," he said.
"Not only was he talented on the playing fields, but he was also
well-respected by his team-mates and the people in the community.
He was a clean-cut guy with a winning personality and always had a
smile for everyone," he said.
Marcus's life was cut short at an early age, but his team-mates
and class-mates will always remember him and the joy that he
brought into everyone's life that he touched, like his team-mate and
class-mate, Kingsley Tharpe.
"Marcus was my closest friend. We had no secrets from each
other. His death was a very traumatic experience for me and left a big void in my life that I feel even today.
"We played football, baseball and basketball together in high
school and dreamed of playing professional baseball. I have so many
fond memories of him, playing sports together, going to the movies at the Edray Theater, eating lunch at the Custard Shoppe, dragging U.S. 90 in Mr. Earl's Chevrolet pick-up, double dating -- so many memories."
And for many, Kingsley's closing sentiments are chorused: "I
lost my best friend, and the world lost one of its best."
E. W. (Junior) Crockett
January 29, 1953. Headlines in The Florida Times-Union blared,
'SHINE KING SUSPECT NABBED'. U.S. Agents, long on the trail of E.W.
'Junior' Crockett had at last fulfilled their quest and captured their man. They thought that anyway. Like always, the Robin Hood of Baker County got away. And did so legally.
Junior Crockett was never reared in poverty like most of the
people in Baker County's rural backwoods, but he had an affinity for
those who were. When circumstances beyond his control invaded his
life, he used his genius and enterprising qualities to assist the poor and become a Robin hood legend of the people, not only of Baker County, but throughout the south Georgia backlands and other areas where struggling Americans dwelled as well.
When Crockett's father, Dr. E.W. Crockett, Sr., was senselessly
murdered by his third wife, Ella Dykes Crockett, Junior Crockett was a 17-year-old-lad from a broken home (See Dr. E.W. Crockett's story in Volume V of Once Upon A Lifetime).
Dr. Crockett owned valuable property in downtown Macclenny
where he maintained an office and a sundry store. His son worked in
the sundry store.
"After daddy's death, I wanted to keep the Sundry Store, and
since it had perishables, such as ice cream, fountain drinks, etc, a public auction was quickly held to settle the estate," said Junior. "I remember that several successful businessmen wanted the store and had
planned to bid on it, but when they found out I was trying to keep it, only one of them made a bid, and fortunately, I outbid him."
He soon discovered that the local bank had permitted loans to
be taken out on his father's property by his estranged wife, Ella, whose name did not even appear on the deed. Young Crockett quickly sought a way to block bank officials who said they would have to foreclose on the buildings.
Dr. E.W. Crockett had developed a friendship with a man from
Thomasville, Georgia, who often stopped by the sundry store when in
town. Junior told his father's friend about the problem.
"He asked me how much I needed and when I told him, he
was more than willing to make me a loan."
To the shock of bank officials, Crockett paid the mortgage off
in the nick of time and saved his only inheritance.
That incident set the scene that would change his life forever and
launch him in a direction that he had never considered or even thought about.
"The way I got started in the moonshine business was, in a
way, a necessity," he said. "I needed to pay back the significant loan to the friend who had helped me salvage what daddy had worked so
hard for. Despite what some people thought, I did not inherit any
money when my daddy died. Times were hard and commodities were
short. People couldn't always pay daddy for his services and he never sent them a bill. He never kept books and never refused to attend a person who owed him for a previous service. That's just the way daddy
was," he said.
"The only way some people in the county could put food on
their tables and clothes on their backs in those Depression years was from a small income they could earn from making and selling moonshine when they couldn't find work doing something else. One day
some of them were in the sundry store talking about how they couldn't get sugar, syrup, etc to make the 'shine, so I told them about the people in Thomasville who had helped me. I knew that was their business, so we drove over there and found out that a lot of the farmers
were selling their syrup to the big Roddenberry people for 50 cents a gallon. I saw how poor these people were and I offered to buy their
syrup for 65 cents a gallon. The people in Baker County were glad to
pay me a dollar, so I made 35 cents off of every gallon I bought and
sold. One of the most pleasurable things that can happen to you is
when people need you and you are able to help.
"As I became more acquainted with my friend in Thomasville, I
saw a chance to make some money for myself to repay the loan and
help the people in south Georgia and Baker County as well. Most of the farmers made from 1,000--1,500 gallons of syrup a year. Pretty. soon
those farmers would not talk to anybody but Crockett. I'd go up there 2-3 o'clock in the morning, load up and go right back for more. Those old people would be up at all hours with long tables set up in their kitchen. While we loaded syrup, they were cooking a meal for us
regardless of the hour. I think we started hauling syrup in November
and news got around like wildfire: 'Don't sell your syrup to
Roddenberry, this man we know down in Florida will come get it and
pay you more,' they'd say. I didn't have the money to finance their
crop like Roddenberry did some of them, but I told them 'if you got to have your money, tell me and I'll come get the syrup from you instead
of making the rounds, so you'll have your money when you need it.'
And it didn't take long before they knew I'd do what I told them I'd do. They'd have dinner or breakfast ready for us when we'd get there. I'd go for days on days that I didn't pull my shoes off.
"That brought in good money for me, hauling and selling syrup.
Then I found out that the farmers had a hard time selling the whiskey. They'd get caught on the road and lose their haul. Some didn't have transportation to even get out and sell what they'd made. And the revenuers would come along and bust up their expensive stills while they
waited for a buyer. So I got the idea, well, if I'm in this part of it, why not help these people sell their whiskey. I found reliable people that would come here and buy the whiskey from the people I had sold the syrup to. Then the people could pay me for the syrup and that happened the same way with sugar. I made connections right there in
Jacksonville at Winn Lovett for sugar. They had a big warehouse and I used to buy it and haul it out by the truck load. Most people had to
have ration stamps back there during the war, because there was supposed to be a shortage, but I found out there was plenty of sugar, the government was just mishandling it. I went as far as New Orleans to
buy sugar and hired people to drive trucks to Florida with it. Their
warehouse floors were sagging with it stacked to the ceiling. Just tons of it! There was no sugar shortage. Those people didn't know what to do with it, they had so much of it, so I didn't have any trouble supplying the people with sugar or syrup to make the 'shine.
"In Macclenny, I rented the old Walker warehouse and had it
full and stacked to the ceiling on the porch with sugar. When I started helping the people to move their whiskey, I got paid for the supplies and they got to work more. This was good because it was always a matter of time before their stills were raided and the more they could
use the stills and make more shine, the more profitable for them. We
all worked well together. They sold more whiskey, made more money
and no one was trying to take advantage of them. The revenuers didn't know at the time what was going on. I didn't figure what we were
doing was immoral, just illegal.
"Later on, as things got bigger and bigger and more people got
involved, it got to the point where I had to make more contacts with
people all over the country in order for these people to stay in business, so it kind of boomeranged. It really made me feel good to pay
those real poor people more money; they didn't have anything and the
moonshine industry was helping them have something.
"I'll never forget how happy they were when they'd see me
come up there. Whole families would be involved. I especially
remember one night when a little boy was helping us load syrup in
Jennings. He couldn't have been more than four years old and he was
carrying those heavy gallons to be loaded on the truck. Then someone
would take it from him and put it on the truck. Afterwards I gave him a dollar. I said, 'Now remember, this is the first dollar you ever earned.'
Years later I met him as a successful lawyer in the Miami area and he showed me that first dollar he earned. He had it framed.
"What ever the moonshiners needed to make whiskey, I got it
for'em. Sugar, syrup, automobiles, etc. I was their supplier. I'd find surplus supplies, get good prices for 'em, and pass it on. We all worked so good together and I can't even remember one case where anyone got tricked by an undercover. There was just a trust during that time with people. That's how it all got started," he said.
"Pretty soon the industry grew so big that I had to start looking
for people to help me. I had people coming from as far away as Illinois to buy shine. They made their own shine in the summer time, but in winter, that's when we usually sold so much of it. It was like a steam roller, it just kept going, and I felt very fortunate when the money started rolling in. I don't feel I was doing anything wrong, or influencing anyone for bad.
"During the war when cars were scarce, I found cars and tires
for people. I found out where they were and I'd go get 'em and make
a profit. If people got sick, or in trouble, and needed money, they'd seek me out for help and I'd try to assist with whatever it was they needed. I liked helping people and they knew it.
Crockett said he had no respect for some of the professional
law makers involved because they were fooling the people and were
"In fact, they used the moonshine industry in order to gain
votes when they were corrupt themselves. You lose respect for those
kind," he said.
"One state trooper lied and said I shot at him, but later he was
fired when it was noticed the window of his car was fired on from
inside the vehicle and he was just trying to set me up."
Crockett is talking about Florida Highway Patrol Trooper
Hershel Owens, who was stationed in Baldwin at the time.
Headlines screamed out from the front page of the Florida Times
Union on Sunday, November 18, 1954, that the investigation of the
fray was being made by Lt. J.W. Jordan of the FHP. He reported that
the driver of the Cadillac, who shot and struck the windshield of
Owens' car, was positively identified as Junior Crockett of Macclenny. Owens claimed that he was struck by a piece of flying glass as four bullets hit his windshield and a fifth bullet entered the hood of his FHP car.
The article stated, "Crockett, who is scheduled to appear in
Federal court here Nov. 29 for trial on charges of conspiracy to violate internal revenue liquor laws, has been giving troopers and beverage agents trouble for several years.
"One of the wealthiest men in Macclenny, Crockett has long
been called by beverage agents a king-pin in North Florida's leading
industry, the illicit manufacture of whisky."
The article further stated that the gunfire came from Crockett's
Bootlegger car after it crossed into Georgia during the 90-mile-per-hour chase.
The Lake City Reporter headlined,
'Murder Attempt Charge Sought in Georgia for Alleged Bootlegger'.
Crockett said that Trooper Hershal Owens was fired from the
FHP when it was proven that he made a false report.
"Owens actually shot his own FHP car windshield out which
was verified by Columbia County Sheriff Ralph Witt," he said.
At the time, the Crocketts lived comfortably in a modest home
on SR 121 in North Macclenny, but one day someone knocked on their
door. He said he had come to buy their house.
"My daughter attended a shower here last week, and she liked
your house. I want to buy her a house before I return to my home in
California and this is the one she wants," he said.
"Well, you must be mistaken," said Doris, "This house is not for sale."
But a good deal was struck and Doris moved out immediately
so Paula and John Crews could move in. That's when they built what
some citizens called, "the mansion on the hill." It's still known as the Crockett house today and one of the finest in Baker County. It is situated on a hill between Macclenny and Glen and is bordered on the
west by the St. Mary's River. Today it is surrounded by a subdivision of houses, instead of the 140 acres of green, rolling pastures and grazing horses that once cast a picturesque spell. Still, it's aged majesty reflects the affluence the Crocketts attained.
"I didn't just deal in moonshine supplies," said Junior. "I also
owned the Dodge/Plymouth Dealership and Doris and I built the EdRay
Theatre with Lucy and Ray Dinkins. We ran it until television came in. And we ran the Sundry Store."
During the time the Crocketts owned the sundry store, most of
the businesses that served food or drinks offered curb-side service.
The Sundry store was no exception.
"We sold cokes for five cents. People would drive up in their
car and toot their car horn and we'd go out to take the order, whether it was one person or more. We would attach a little tray to the car window and put their order on it. When they finished, they would
toot their car horn again and we would have to go back out and get
the dirty glasses. All for a five-cent sale. Can you imagine?" said Doris. "It was really work running back and forth four or five times for just one sale and then having to wait on customers inside, too."
When Doris arrived at the sundry store each morning, she had
to sweep and clean up. The ice man brought ice in blocks, which was
stored in an ice box. She had to chip pieces of it with an ice pick, then grind it by hand for the soda fountain drinks. In addition, they sold milk shakes, vanilla cokes, lime sours, cherry cokes, root beer floats, etc.
After the war Junior sold the Sundry Store to his friend, Paul
Rhoden, who had been hired years before by Dr. E.W. Crockett as the
sundry's first soda-jerk. The name was changed to Paul's Rexal Drugs
and Paul soon after became the county's first pharmacist (See Paul
Rhoden's story in Volume V of Once Upon A Lifetime).
Junior Crockett carries fond memories of his Baker County friends,
especially those with whom he dealt with in the moonshine industry.
"I will tell you real quick that the moonshiners I knew were the
greatest people I've ever known in my life. I never lost a penny dealing with them. After I moved away and met affluent people who
belonged to the fancy country clubs, I quickly found that I couldn't say that about them," said Junior.
Crockett eventually moved to Valdosta and successfully went into
the coin- operated machine business. He has constructed a luxurious 105-bed nursing home, owns apartment houses and other real estate.
I have met people from all over the United States, but I was
never obligated to them for anything. We were loyal to one another
when we needed help or favors, but we didn't expect anything in return. We just couldn't do enough for one another. We still keep in touch with all those wonderful people who are still good friends," he said.
Although he was characterized by the law as the notorious
kingpin moonshiner, Crockett was never convicted in a court of law for breaking liquor laws.
"I never made a drop of moonshine or had a drop made," he
said. "I never let anyone work for me that hadn't previously worked in the whiskey business. In other words, I never hired anyone that wasn't already in the business. I never got anyone started in the business or influenced them to come in, in fact I discouraged anyone wanting to come in," he said.
Crockett said his activities in the moonshine enterprise consisted of buying and selling to the moonshiners. He freely admits the
action brought him financial gain; however, he wisely invested in other lucrative business ventures as well.
"At one time, we owned a private plane and have taken trips to
entertain our friends, as well as professional people like lawyers,
judges, politicians, sports figures and business acquaintances. We flew to places like Las Vegas, Mexico, South America, Washington and
California. It's been a full life, one that brings back many fond memories," he said.
"I don't know of any enemies I have in Baker County. I feel I
have many close friends here and it will always be home to us. We've
led a very interesting life, and it has made me feel as though I was on top of the world," he said. "I remember with fondness all of the great people I have known, especially the honest folks that were 100 per
cent true and loyal to their word. They are still true friends now, as they were 40 years ago. I feel very fortunate to have been born and
raised up among the people in Baker County," he said.
In 1978, the Crocketts purchased the first of many motor
homes and have since enjoyed their myriad travelling adventures,
including visiting every one of the United States but Hawaii. They have
travelled through the Canadian Provinces, including the Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.
"The most fun was driving Old U.S. 50, called the loneliest road
in America by Life Magazine," said Doris. "We've been from the east
coast to Carson City, Nevada; old western ghost towns and been on The Oregon Trail from St. Louis, Mo., to Salem, Oregon."
The Crocketts say their love of travelling will keep them on the
road in the future. However, they won't go too far, or stay too long, because their greatest interest is still their family. Their son, Edward Wray III, and his wife, Pam, have two children, Crystal and Austin Edward Wray. Edward Wray launched his own very successful coin-
operated machine business in Valdosta.
The Crockett's son, David, and his wife, Kay, also live in Valdosta
where David is affiliated with the Lincoln-Mercury Dealership.
More than half a century has passed since the tragedy
occurred that changed the life of Edward Wray Crockett, Jr. He had
planned to be a physician like his dad, but a turn of events, and fate, cast him in another direction. Misfortune? I doubt it. He holds a distinction in Baker County that belongs only to him. Like his legendary
father, the immortal sphere of his era of time is cast in history. His quest as a humanitarian was simply woven into the trail of events that occurred in his lifetime and his legacy will be around for as long as there is a Baker County and a history to remember.
NOTE: Read the life of Dr. E.W. Crockett, Sr. in Once Upon A Life Time Volume V.
Sitting in his office behind his desk at North East Florida State
Hospital, Jimmy Lyons feels sheltered and unscathed. He has been there for 34 years working his way up through the ranks from aide to supervisor of the laundry department. Reaching back to an era that is surely a time of reflection for Baker Countians, Jimmy speeds through it almost as fast as he once did on the highways and by-ways of Florida and
Georgia. With a memory sharp and keen, he is an endless reservoir of
stories reflecting the age of the moonshine days of Baker County.
Born in the neck of the Georgia Bend in 1934, about five miles
from Moniac, he was next to the youngest of seven children born to
John Westly and Pearlie Thrift Lyons.
The family toiled to make a living on their farm. There were
the usual plowing, hoeing, planting, reaping, canning, preserving,
hog-killing, beef-butchering days. Down by the branch, the family's
crude moonshine still offered a supplemental income to buy shoes,
clothes, and some household staples.
"It was just a way of life and I grew up thinking that was what
you were supposed to do," he reflected in a recent interview. "We all helped from the time we could. I can still remember being barely big
enough to carry a gallon of cane syrup to the still for daddy to make the shine. It was as common to me as hoeing the corn growing in the
field," he said.
In time, John Westly Lyons was caught by the revenuers and
served time in prison.
"Mama had a nervous breakdown. I went to live with my Aunt
Lula Thrift, who was already like a second mama to me, and the other
younguns were scattered around somewhere. I think it was too much
for mama, with daddy being sent off, and she was left with all of us
younguns to take care of. She was in Milledgeville for about two
years," he said.
When the family re-united, they moved to Macclenny. John
Westly Lyons took a job in Jacksonville and left the farm and moonshine behind.
"But me and my brothers continued working in it," said Jimmy.
"That's the only way we knew to get an income. I didn't ever own a
still, but I always helped my brothers."
Eventually he quit school. "I got to thinking I knew everything
in the world. You know how some young people are, you just can't tell them anything. I was a teen-ager and I wanted me a car. I'd growed
up in it, I knowed there was money to be made in it."
When he was 16 years old, a revenuer by the name of Spanks
raided a still in Taylor. He was there. He was lucky. He received probation.
"Me and another guy were coming out from the still with a full
load of liquor. Them revenuers watched us until we got through and
loaded it on an old cut-down Model-A truck. We had started out to
the main road and that's when one jumped on the truck on one side
and one on the other. The old truck didn't have a top on it. They took us to Jacksonville to jail and we made bond easy.
"I dropped out of school and continued working for my brothers. Then I got to hauling it for them. Eventually, I hauled for Dub
Sands and a few more. Dub was an expert mechanic, he could build
them old cars, and make them go so fast they'd out-run anything on
the road. I loved it. I spent most of my money going to the races in
Daytona when I wasn't hauling. It was during the time when they
raced on the beach over there and they'd let us race cars if we wanted to. I was so young and foolish, I don't know how I lived through those days. Sometimes I hauled as many as two loads a night, but always on the average of nine or ten loads a week. I guess if I was going to work in it that much I should have done it for myself instead of working for someone else, but I just never did.
"My brothers had moonshine stills in Baker County as well as
places outside the county. One of their stills was on a lake in Winter Haven. We boated our sugar and supplies over to the still and boated the shine back. When it was raided, one of our still workers had to escape by swimming the lake.
"There are just so many experiences that happened during
those days. I remember one night me and my first cousin were working at a still up there on the Santa Fe River near Branford. We were
always careful when we drove by the state's truck-checking station.
We had hauled a load of liquor up to Thomasville this particular time and were bringing back a load of sugar. Sugar had become very scarce and was getting critical because the law had so many people scared to sell it to us.
"We were supposed to store the sugar in an old tobacco barn,
so when I passed by that weigh-station that morning, there was a
trooper there and he motioned me to stop. Well, I had no intentions
of stopping with that load of sugar, so the race was on. It started
about 10 a.m. that morning and it had been raining just a little bit, just enough to wet the road. I had outrun him and got away, but I had peeled a tire, so I turned to get off the road because I knowed I was having tire problems. It had rained just enough that he seen where I
had turned, so he backs up and comes in there behind me. So we
have another race until the tire finally went flat. I reached a dead end and went straight out through the pines. I was driving a New York
Chrysler and I told my cousin I'd just tear it all to pieces before I'd let them have it. I knocked down several trees before it stopped. I told my cousin to grab the turpentine in the glove compartment and run. Well, the state trooper called the sheriff and they put the dogs on us. We could hear them. I knew the Fort White highway was only a couple
miles over from us, so I told my cousin that when we got to the highway we needed to quickly stand on the shoulder of the road and
douse all of our clothing and shoes with the turpentine, then cross the road to the other side. That way the dogs would be unable to trail us, the turpentine would throw them off. So that's what we did. We
crossed the road and hid in the woods. We were looking at'em when
the dogs stopped at the road. We heard one of them say, 'Well,
they've been picked up,' so it worked just like I thought it would. In a few minutes we were picked up by my brothers in the car trailing us. They knew something had happened and it didn't take long for them
to figure it out.
"During those times we had our own little codes. Wherever
we were hiding, we would put a little bush or something heavy
enough on the edge of the highway that it wouldn't get blown off
and they would just drive until they saw it. It was really a cat-and-mouse game.
"Another time, I was up in Albany, Georgia. Apparently, someone had tipped them off that we'd be coming up there. For some reason that night I felt like taking another road. I had to go over an old
one-way wooden bridge. I didn't know it but I had come out on the
road in front of where the sheriff was supposed to cut me off. I eased up on the bridge, and there was a deputy who had been stationed on
the other side. When he saw me, he headed up on the bridge from the
other way. When I saw that, I started backing off, but the deputy's car started bumping me. The Georgia state revenuer who was on the passenger side of the deputy's car jumps out and starts shooting at my
front tire on the left-hand side of the car. It bounced off and hit the right rear instead, before I got off the bridge. When I went around him, he was shooting. I had the flat tire or I'd have outrun the bunch of 'em, but after they chased me about 10 miles, I was down to the hub;
the rim was gone. I don't know how many times they shot at me, and
I never have figured out how they could shoot so many times and
never hit another tire. I was scared, anyone in their right mind would have been.
"By this time, they had notified the sheriff and he was trailing
me. Flying pieces of metal from my car had beat the grill out of the
sheriff's car and metal was flying everywhere. I finally decided to
abandon the car and run, so I pulled up by an old fence and by the
time I got out of the car, I was over the fence, running. I was young and I knew it would have taken a race-horse to catch me.
"I was out there in the woods all night, not knowing where I
was, but finally about 10 o'clock the next morning I came up on a
feller's house. I didn't no more than get out of his sight when he'd
done called the sheriff, and they jumped the dogs back on me from
there. They finally caught me, and the old revenuer from back at the
bridge grabbed me and was cussing. He said, 'You old S.O.B., you're
the one who tried to run over me.' I told him all I was doing was trying to get away. The sheriff was nice. He asked me if I was hurt.
Georgia makes their own law, at least they did back then in some
places, and all he was seeing were dollar signs. I knew that's all he wanted was money.
"I asked him if I could make a phone call and he said I could. I
told him I needed to know just how much it was going to cost me. He
said, 'Well, it will be $1,000,' and if I wanted the car back, it would be another $ 1,000.
"I only had about 15 jugs of liquor in the car, because I had
already delivered some. I asked him if I was going to have to stay in jail, and he said, 'No, you call someone to bring the money and I'll
have the judge standing by.' So I did and I never will forget it. The judge had one of these old, long, wheel-barrow mustaches. He was
skinny as a bean pole and looked like he was about six foot and a
half. He was all drooped over and the old codger said, 'Mr. Lyons, the county has got you charged with possession and transporting of illegal moonshine. How do you plead?" I said, 'I plead guilty, judge,' and he said, 'Well, it's going to be $250 for possession and $250 for transporting.' The sheriff spoke up and said, 'No, No, judge, you got it all wrong,' and he goes up to talk to the judge and the judge looks at
his secretary and said, 'Strike that! It will be $500 for possession and $500 for transporting.' They meant to get $1,000 from me and they
"The next time I was caught, me and my brothers were delivering some liquor to an undercover man, but we didn't know it. It was a
set up. We had been regularly delivering to a black man by the name
of Red. We learned later that he had been caught and told if he'd help them catch us, he wouldn't have to serve time. Actually, they didn't care about me, they wanted the man I was working for.
"Well, they knew we were coming, but they didn't know exactly how. They knew who we were, but they didn't know what we were
driving, or what route we were coming. It was up around Pearson,
Georgia, where they set up a road-block on the bridge. We never
stopped at filling stations on our hauls; we always took along our own gas in cans, so we had stopped on the side of the road to gas up. We
had two cars loaded with more than 45 cans of liquor each, a total of 95 gallons. My brother was driving the lookout car ahead of us.
"While we were pouring the gas in the car, a state trooper
drove up behind us. We jumped in the cars, throwing the gas cans
down. There was a sheriff's car across the bridge and I was running so fast I couldn't stop. I was probably going 120 miles per hour, or more, in one of them cars Dub had built. I just picked the biggest hole I could see and tried to go through. I hit the police car and it went spinning around. My brother was driving the car behind me, and he hits it, too, and goes down an embankment about 20 feet. The impact had
knocked the frame out from under my car and it had no control. My
first cousin was with me, because earlier that evening I had been visiting my dad in the hospital because he had cancer, and for some reason I had fainted. So my brothers thought I ought to have someone
ride with me, just in case, and that's why he was with me. We both
jumped out of the car and went running off in the woods together.
One of the deputies up on the bridge, who had a sawed off shot gun
was shooting at us.
"Meanwhile, they caught my brother and beat him so bad he
had to have several pints of blood and something like 160 stitches in his head. They called in the dogs to put on me and my first cousin.
We ran for about an hour and we could hear the dogs coming. We didn't know exactly where we were, but we knew it couldn't be too far
from Douglas. Then, it come the damdest flood you have ever seen in
your life and it rained on us all night long. We were just drenched. Can you imagine how miserable we were with no cover, soaked through
and it in the winter time? The only good thing was when it stopped,
the dogs had not been able to track us because of the rain.
"We finally got over to the road and caught a ride with a
farmer into town. I got to a phone and called the Amoco station in
Macclenny and a friend answered the phone. I told him I was in
Douglas and to get airborne and come get us. He was there an hour
and a half later. Even though I got away, they knew who I was. We
had lost two loads of liquor and two cars in the skirmish.
"It was a week or so before Wilford was even able to leave the
hospital and come home. The law told my other brother that they
knew who I was and started trying to negotiate with him. They told
him they knew who I was, and if I'd come on up and plead guilty, they would charge me $2,000 and Wilford $2,000 and that would clear it up and I wouldn't have a record or outstanding warrant there.
"When my brother came back and told me, I said, 'No! I ain't
going back up there to Pearson where that sheriff is.' So they told my brother to bring the $4,000 and Wilford could plead for me, too. So,
when they tried me, they found me guilty. They fined me $2,000 and
they ain't never put their hands on me. I never seen any of them.
Then the sheriff told my brother he could come back through there
with loads for the next three months to make the money back for the
lost liquor and cars, but he said that each time we came through we'd have to pay him something. He said that after the three months we
would be subject to arrest again. But we didn't go back up that way
again because there was just no way to trust the law. Our motto was,
'When you see it, out-run it.'
"One night I had gone out about ten miles in the woods to pick
up some liquor to haul. It was a full moon, not a cloud in the sky, so after I loaded up, I said, 'I'm just going to ease out of here with my lights off.' I don't know why I felt that way that night, but I was just riding along there when I saw a light pop on up ahead, like a car light or something. They had backed up there in those woods, waiting on
me. I was working for Dub that night and he and his partner had
already gone out before me. I guess the law knew just a little more
than I thought they did about us, so when I saw the light, I turned my lights on and popped the fuel to it and started on by them. One of
'em run out there in the road and started shooting. I knew they had
hit the car at least twice. I out-ran them and went on up to find Dub and them. We looked the car over and found where one bullet hit. If it hadn't hit where it did and bounced off, I would have been shot right
through the back of the head. The next morning Dub looked the car
over and the second bullet had gone right up the tail pipe. He must
have shot a dozen times and never hit the car as big as it was but
twice. I don't know what he thought he was shooting at.
"It wasn't hard for us to get away from them. Our cars just were
faster. Back then, we had them old cars fixed where you could turn
out one headlight, or you could turn out both headlights; you could
turn out one tail light, or both; you could open the door and not turn on the car light. We could just switch 'em all on, or all around or off. We didn't have stop lights. We had one little light that would just shine down on the white center line in the middle of the highway to keep us on the road while they were chasing us. If they were chasing us, they couldn't see it, but we could tell where we were going, and we always 'cased' out the area and knew where the curves in the road were. We got familiar with where we were going most of the time.
"You could tell a loaded moonshine car from anything else. It
would roar and biller. I've been through many of them little old towns at night and have to stop at a red light while trying to ease through. You could actually hear them plate glass windows rattle just from setting at a red light and the car idling. Anyone at all who knew about automobiles knew when they saw you what you were doing. We got
more attention when we were trying to slip through a town than on
the highway running a 100 miles per hour. I learned how to go all the way to Tallahassee on a dirt road, just crossing the highway, never driving on it.
"Dub Sands was the man to be with in this business. He was a
genius building the cars we drove. Each morning when I'd come in
from taking a load, Dub would want to know if the car was running
right or needed any repairs or adjustments and I'd discuss this every morning with him. If it did, he would make them during the day
before I went out again that night. He got to where he liked to go
with me in the escort car.
"One such night, he wanted to test this Dodge, so he and his
partner got up to 140 miles per hour and Dub wanted me to pass him.
I got in all the wind that happens sometime when you get in back of a big truck and it actually blowed the floor boards out of that old Dodge.
It had an old wooden floor board. Now Dub was shook up, and it took
a lot to get him shook up because he didn't get shook up easy. He
said, 'I bet you it won't blow up out of there anymore,' so he went
and got some sheet metal and he welded it down, and we never had
any more problems. That little Dodge was something.
"I stayed with my brothers sometimes, but mostly I stayed with
Mama. I let her drive that Dodge with the Chrysler engine, and you
just could see her peeping over the steering wheel. It was my personal car and she loved it, but she'd say, 'Son, that thing's just got too much power. You need to get something done to it,' and I'd tell her, 'Mama, I want all that power, I might need it.' It had two four-barrel carburetors with a Chrysler engine. Mama would squall them tires every time the gears changed.
"She knew I was into shine. She'd say something to me about
it all the time. Daddy knowed it, too. They both wanted us out, but
they had raised us in it. Daddy never got into hauling it, he just made a little bit, but we just kept right on.
"Right after Ed Yarbrough got to be sheriff, there was a Florida
Highway Patrol Trooper named L.B. Boyette that was stationed in Baker County and he loved to run us more than anything. I think he would
have taken a load just for the experience, if he could have. He would aggravate us to death; he was never out there on Highway 90, or
places for normal traffic. You never caught Boyette anywhere else but up there on the Fargo Road, that's where he stayed, always trying to
catch us with a load of shine.
"G.W. Rhoden was Ed's deputy and he talked Ed into buying
one of them big Chevrolets with a 454 engine and three two-barrel
carburetors. It was supposed to fly. It was a time when everyone was
really impressed with big fast cars. I told Dub, after G.W got this car, that we needed to try him against one of our cars while it was empty and not wait until it was full with a load. So Dub said maybe we'd run up with him and check him out.
"About a week or so later, no one had tried G.W. with that car.
One of our buyers up in Georgia called and said he needed some liquor right then, So Dub said we needed to run the liquor up there. He went up to the Fargo Road to see if the law was on the road. Well, G.W. and L.B. Boyette were up there that night, so Dub said, 'Well, we're just not going to go because we just don't know how good that car of G.W.'s will run; we haven't tried it, so we had better call this off.'
"They went back to check one more time and came back and
said, 'They're gone,' I said, 'Well, get out of my way and let me go.' I was sitting there loaded, just across the Georgia line over there by Moniac, so I took off. When I came out and made my turn there was
G.W. and the race was on. Boyette was with him. It was a
cat-and-mouse game; they were having as much fun with it as we
were ... it was a man's game, like, who out-smarted the other wins.
"G.W. told me, after the race, that Boyette said, 'We got him
now.' Well, that old Chrysler that I was in was slow getting wound up even though I had stomped it to the bottom. Anyway, they whipped
right around and were at me for four or five miles. They were not
close enough to shoot, but I think they would have if they could have gotten a little closer. Anyhow, I just knew he was going to run up
there on me. I never thought that Chrysler would take off and it
loaded; in fact I think I had 47 cans of liquor and two cans of gas with me too.
"I crossed the railroad, which is a bad bump running wide
open, and the old car kept a-moaning and a-groaning and gettin' it.
There came a little rain and I was going so fast the windshield wipers were blowing away from the glass. All I could see at one time was the white line. Pretty soon they started falling back and I could tell the lights were not as close as they had been. Something was wrong with
my car, the carburetor had been jerked wide open. I wasn't sure I
could make the up-coming curve so I switched the car off to slow
down and almost lost control when I got there anyway.
"When I drove into Fargo, I knew I needed to hide until I could
get the car fixed, so I drove into the negro quarters and hid behind
a house. I knew Dub would be coming behind me and know where to
look. When he got there, he told me that G.W. and Boyette had
stopped him, and Boyette had said, 'Well, we thought we had him, but
we ain't got nothing to catch that car. Just tell Jimmy we'll buzz him again tornorrow.' And he would, he'd be up there every night.
"Boyette thought he could out-run that old Chrysler I had and
one night we had a race on the Taylor Road. We started at the Griffis curve and when we got to Cedar Creek I just eat him up. Next night, he'd be right up there on the Fargo Road to try and catch me again. He'd give the revenuers all the information he could.
"Boyette once took two big army blankets and sewed them
together to drape over his car. Then he took a machete, cut down
some trees and stood them up in front of the car to camouflage himself. Dub had gone up there to a place Boyette liked to go, called Little and Big Moccasin Swamp, to see if he was backed up there in his car waiting for us. He didn't find him, so when I got there he was waiting for me. When I came by the race was on, but I out-ran him.
"The following night, he was back up there with his car covered up with that blanket and all those trees and Dub made out like
he didn't see him. We'd gone back up there and found where he had
cut the trees down so we were on to him. Dub came back that night
and said, 'Well, he's in the same place, what are you going to do?' I said, 'Well, I'll fix him,' and he said, 'You're not going back up there knowing he's going to come out, are you?' But I told him I'd be all right.
"So I went up to the weight-checking station and when I saw
these two big trucks pulling out, I pulled in between them and was
going about 50 miles per hour with my lights off. The truckers knew
what I was doing, I guess. When I got up there to the curve where I
thought Boyette would be, I switched my lights on. I saw Boyette
standing up there beside the road listening for the sound of my car.
When my lights popped on him, man, he run for his car and he slipped
down and I was totally gone when he got up and got to his car. He
tried to drive out so fast his car got stuck and later I found out someone had to go up there and get him out. He never did come after me
and I wondered what happened until they told me.
"I have out-run Boyette more times than I got fingers and toes.
He ran me more times than any man to be the same man," he said,
"There are so many stories. It was hard work and dangerous.
One morning, me and Dub were coming through Fargo just before daylight and a feller pulled right out in front of us. He had a mule in the back of his truck. There wasn't much to Fargo, just a couple of filling stations there. This old feller pulled right out in front of me and I ran into him. The car I was driving ended up 50 yards up the road, turned upside down. We knocked the mule out of the truck, and the old man was injured pretty bad. So was I, but we had seat belts, those regular airplane kind and I'd say they saved us. They carried me to the hospital in Homerville. I had a guard the whole time I was there. If the old feller had died, I probably would be in the penitentiary today.
"Being who we were, we had no insurance on the car and it
wasn't in anybody's name. We had to come up with the money to
pay the man's hospital bills, and mine. We had to buy the man another truck to replace his. I was driving for Dub and he was responsible, him and his partner, but I think Dub ended up paying most of it. Dub was faithful to do all he could do, he bent over backwards and he would have done what he had to do even if he would have had to sell his home. His partner was a little different. It was always understood that if you were working for someone and something happened, they would be responsible to pay the bills. I think that incident cost about $15,000 and that was a lot of money in those days.
Things finally came to an end for the Lyons' brothers one day
up around Adelle, Georgia. "We got a call from this man saying he
needed us to haul him a load. We hauled it up to him and he paid us
fine, but I felt something was wrong, that he was a crook. But it was one of them times when liquor was moving slow and we were needing to move it, so on the second trip, the law was there with badges.
They got me and Wilford at the same time. They tried us by jury in
Valdosta. We tried to get off by saying the federal man had tricked us by trying to get us to come up there and party with women and
money. We tried to convince them it was entrapment, but they didn't
buy it. The old Judge sentenced me and Wilford to 15 months apiece.
He said, 'Son, I'm going to do you a favor,' and he sent me to federal
prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
"When I got up there, the people said, 'Well, what in the world
are you doing up here?' and I said, 'I don't know, the judge said he was going to do me a favor and sent me here.' I tried to transfer to
Tallahassee, but I never did get there. I spent a few days in Atlanta. If you ever go to prison in Atlanta, you never get through hearing all the doors close when you're in there. They sent me from Atlanta to Lewisburg on a Greyhound bus with a guard in back and a couple of guards in front. The guards had machine guns in Atlanta. They had me handcuffed and shackled and that's the way I rode the bus. I was
about 25 years old at the time. They kept me in minimum custody on
a farm. When they discharged me, they wouldn't do it before midnight, but my family was there waiting for me. That was the last of my moonshine career. I had to report to a parole officer in Jacksonville
after prison. I got a job in Jacksonville with a water company. I didn't care about that, so I put in an application with NEFSH and went to work for them."
Jimmy married Lois Smith of Taylor. They have two lovely
"If I had to go back and live the life over I wouldn't do that. I
think I'd rather be racing on a race track. I did it because I love to drive the fast cars. I blew the money partying.
"There is one thing for sure in my life I'd do differently, if I had
it to go over. I'd have me an education. If I'd had an education, I could have been no telling what out here at NEFSH. As it was, I started out in 1961 as an aide for $185 a month and I've worked up to department
head in the laundry, but that was having friends help me up the way.
Many opportunities had to be passed up because of the lack of an
"I remember once my daddy said to me, 'Son, you're making a
little money, why don't you invest it.' And I said, 'Invest in what?', and he said, 'Son, I'm going to tell you, bootlegging ain't going to be here forever.' And I said, 'Daddy, there will be bootlegging here as long as the world's here. It's been here all your life,' and he said, 'Yes, but everything changes.' And I said, 'Well, this ain't going to change, there will be bootlegging from now on.' And he said, 'Son, see that big oak tree out there?' and I said, 'Yes,' and he said, 'Does it stay the same all the time?' I said, 'No, it grows, sheds it leaves and puts more on,' and he said, 'it changes,' and I said, 'Well, you talk about investment, what am I going to invest in?' He said, 'Buy land up there in the woods,' and I said, 'Daddy, ain't nobody ever going to want that old land up there in them woods.' And I didn't think they ever would.
"That was back in them days when lots of that old land up
there around Taylor didn't even belong to anyone; I think you could
homestead it. I thought it would always be worthless. I could have
bought land right here in Macclenny for two to three hundred dollars a lot and almost all of 221 for nothing. But who had the insight for that?
"My money was usually always on me, or stashed away somewhere. I didn't use no bank, I mostly kept it on me or in the car. I
really never had more than eight or ten thousand dollars at one time. I partied a lot, and I gave mama some, whatever she wanted. As I said, I was young and foolish. I was hauling shine every night all up in Georgia or down in south Florida, east and west, north and south.
"The law wasn't always honest, either -- especially those in
Georgia. One night, the law raided one of our stills up there in
Stattenville, Georgia, and run the boys off working it. They hauled the liquor and condenser, water pump and an old jeep off and locked it up in the jail yard. That night, Dub's partner went to see the sheriff up there and he gave him the key to the jail and we went over there and
hauled all that off from the jail yard. It was in the papers that they had raided the still and the bootleggers had stolen it back from the sheriff. But it was a payoff. So many of them were interested in was what they could get out of it and not so much sending you off for doing it. All they could see was dollar signs.
"I would never get involved in this dope and stuff that ruins
people's lives. Anyone that wants to can go right down to the corner
and buy a bottle of liquor. All I was doing was giving them a cheaper drink and it was just as good a liquor, maybe better. In other words, if I was the only one producing liquor, it would be different, but the government is in the business, the state is in the business, and all I did was cheat the government out of taxes, no more than when some
people today cheat the government out of taxes. I was raised up
thinking there wasn't anything wrong with it. Either you did it or you starved to death. Jobs were not available and when they were, you
didn't get paid enough to live on. Things changed when the times
changed, but I don't regret it at all. If it came back down to those
choices and I had no other way to make a living, I'd do it again."
The Londa Thrift Family
of North Macclenny
With Lillie Thrift, Willard Thrift
and Kaye Thrift Warner
The Londa Thrift family lived on land that was once occupied
by their forefathers on Rt. 1 in north rural Baker County, five miles from
Macclenny. The family is not sure just when Londa began making
moonshine or manufacturing moonshine stills for boot- leggers, a
term meant to evade legal prohibition to avoid payment of taxes. They aren't sure if their grandfather Jim Thrift made 'shine', but they
remember that he regularly carried a long barrel pistol that was consistently visible hanging from his back pocket.
During the Depression, Londa worked for the WPA (Works
Progress Administration) for three dollars a week and watched his children go to school dressed poorly while he grubbed a scant existence
from farming in any spare hours of the day and night. At some time,
Londa and his wife Lillie (Pierce) grabbed an opportunity to have a better life by making a little moonshine to supplement their meager
income. They joined a legion of Baker Countians who did the same
thing. Making moonshine from necessity, to survive those lean years,
touched almost every family in the county in some way.