Deputies call in pro on liquor stills

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 18, 2011

By Shelley Smith
David Graham Jr. is a moonshine man.
At 89, Graham, the former chief of the Rowan County ABC Law Enforcement Unit, made a trip to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office Friday to see the latest liquor still — the 451st he’s seen.
Once there, he was handed a mason jar filled with an amber liquor. He shook the jar and stared at the bubbles forming at the top.
“It’s about 90 proof,” he said, without a doubt, to Detective Chad Moose. “The longer the beads, the higher the proof.”
He watched the bubbles for a bit longer, and shook the jar again. Then he twisted off the lid, dipped his index finger into the jar and had a taste.
“Yep,” he said, nodding his head in agreement with his initial assessment.
Graham stayed at the office for hours Friday morning, offering tips and telling bootlegging tales from his 40 years chasing moonshine across several counties.
’Shiner with a shotgun
On Nov. 17, 1960, ATU (now ATF) Agent Bob Martin invited Graham and a Davidson County deputy to “raid a little still,” in Davidson County, Graham said. So they went, and watched for a while.
“Everyone took a position around the still,” he said. “It wasn’t an hour until this fellow came in with his dog and he had a shotgun. And he was checking the mash to see if it was ready to run.
“So the dog spotted Martin and started barking. Then we had to close in on it.”
Graham said the bootlegger, James Shirley, started running, and Martin, with pistol in hand, ordered Shirley to stop.
Shirley “turned around and shot (Martin’s) right forefinger, and part of his thumb,” Graham said. “His thumb was just dangling.”
Graham then used the shirt off his back to make a tourniquet for Martin, picked him up, carried him to the car and took him to the hospital.
“He was bleeding pretty bad,” Graham said.
Graham went back to the still and found Shirley had shot himself.
“And then they found, about half a mile from the still, he (Shirley) told an old farmer that was plowing, ‘I just shot a Federal agent,’ ” Graham said. “The old farmer said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have done that.’
“Martin getting shot was the most memorable. Everything else was just about routine. You’d raid a still and they’d run, and you’d run and catch them.
“We had only one that ever shot at us. We kind of had the unwritten law — if you don’t shoot at me, I won’t shoot at you. We didn’t shoot at them. But when he shot at Martin, he broke the law.”
Possum mash
Some of the moonshiner’s recipes were unusual.
“The worst one I ever saw,” Graham said, “is they threw a possum in the mash.”
The moonshine setup with the possum in it was comprised of 400-gallon mash boxes.
“And they put their mash in there, let it ferment,” he said. “And one of them put a possum in the mash. He was floating in the mash when we got it. It just speeded up the fermentation.”
But the moonshiners never got to run that still, Graham said.
“We just blew the possum up along with the still.”
Another operation Graham found was underground, under a hog pen.
“The hogs were just running around on top of it,” he said.
Heart attack hooch
Yadkin Grove Baptist Church was the hiding place for 60 gallons of whiskey in 1953.
Graham was told one of the bootleggers was going in and out of the church at night, so he and other officers staked it out one night.
The suspect, a convicted bootlegger named Carlton Stoner, was a member of the church.
Graham said he watched Stoner remove a wooden plank from the side of the church, which he later found to be part of a trap door leading to the underside of the choir loft and part of the pulpit.
“The choir was standing on it,” he said. “That shook the community up.”
Graham said he’ll also never forget a woman fainting as he and others were searching a house. And when she fainted, she fell onto her bed — a calculated fall and performance.
“She said she was having a heart attack,” Graham said. “We asked her husband if she’d ever had any trouble. He said, ‘No, she’s never had no heart attack.’ ”
So they waited a minute and asked the woman if she was feeling any better, and she said she wasn’t.
“We said, ‘Well, we’re just going to pick the mattress up and move you,’ ” Graham said. “There were 15 bottles of liquor under that mattress.”
40 years, 400 stills
Graham says he was never seriously injured, and several car crashes, doesn’t know how he’s still alive.
“I’ve been lucky if you want to know the truth,” Graham said. “Luckily, I didn’t get killed with the car races we had. Those boys in NASCAR will tell you that we made all of them good drivers.
“Junior Johnson and that bunch, they told me one day, ‘You made us good drivers. We knew where we were going, you didn’t know where you were going.’ ”
Graham, who was appointed ABC chief in 1949, says the still stories are always fresh in his mind.
One day he said the unit didn’t have anything to do, so they drove to Davidson County and walked through a forest for several hours, looking for stills.
“We found five stills,” Graham said, laughing. “We took an axe with us, and chopped them all up.
“That was a lot of fun back then, I’ll tell you that. We had something to do just about every day.”
In 40 years Graham and others on the ABC Law Enforcement Unit made 3,692 arrests, seized 361 vehicles and one boat, seized more than 400 stills, 28,049 gallons of moonshine, destroyed 284,348 gallons of mash and collected $297,697 in fines.
And although the laws and stills have changed, the non-tax-paid white liquor he chased for years has stayed the same.
“Moonshine is still moonshine,” Graham said.