famous moonshiners of the Prohibition-era Smokies

The Prohibition era was a period of rampant illicit distilling in the United States. These rugged mountains offered the perfect hideaway for law defying moonshine producers. Some of these moonshiners gained notoriety and fame during and after their moonshining days. Here’s a look at some of the most famous moonshiners of the Prohibition-era Smokies.

Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton

Born in 1946, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a third-generation moonshiner from Maggie Valley, North Carolina. His unique nickname “Popcorn” came from a notorious barroom brawl over a popcorn machine, demonstrating his fiery spirit and tenacity. 

Popcorn Sutton was more than just a moonshiner; he was a larger-than-life character who embraced his outlaw image. He was recognized by his signature look: overalls, a wide-brimmed hat, and a long unkempt beard, making him an unforgettable figure of the Appalachian moonshine lore. 

Sutton was also an eloquent storyteller and author who self-published his memoir, “Me and My Likker,” documenting his life and his techniques in moonshining. This memoir provided an intimate look into the world of illegal distilling and the renegade lifestyle it entailed. 

Popcorn Sutton continued to illegally produce his potent moonshine well into the 21st century. His relentless dedication to moonshining and his refusal to conform to societal norms made him a cultural symbol of resistance and Appalachian independence.

Al Capone

Al Capone

Al Capone is the most infamous figure from the Prohibition era. While he was more known for his organized crime activities in Chicago, he had links to the moonshine trade in the Smokies. Capone allegedly had a distribution network that stretched into the South. He smuggled the moonshine up north, where he sold it for a significant profit. His operations in the Smokies were extensive, and it is rumored that he stashed a significant amount of white lightning in the mountains.

Robert Glenn Johnson, Sr.

Robert Glenn Johnson Sr.

Robert Glenn Johnson Sr., father of the NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, was another notorious moonshiner in the Smokies. He spent much of the 1930s and 1940s producing moonshine and evading the authorities. His operations were so large that they attracted the federal government’s attention. Ultimately, he served a federal prison sentence for illegal distillation. However, his activities laid the foundation for his son’s infamy.

Robert Glenn "Junior" Johnson

Robert Glen “Junior” Johnson

Robert Glen “Junior” Johnson was born into a family of seasoned moonshiners in North Carolina. He used his early experiences running moonshine in the Appalachian Mountains to carve out an illustrious NASCAR career. His exploits as a young moonshine runner, sharpened his driving skills, and paved the way for his future success on the race track.

The fast-paced nature of moonshine running necessitated a unique skill-set, which proved to be invaluable in stock car racing. Moonshiners like Johnson modified their vehicles to outrun the authorities, ensuring they were faster, capable of carrying hefty loads, and equipped with tricks like the ability to emit a smoke screen for rapid escapes. These alterations, originally made for illegal transportation, laid the groundwork for what we now recognize as stock car racing.

Johnson transitioned from the illicit moonshine trade to pursue stock car racing. His aggressive driving style and adaptability on challenging tracks led to a remarkable record of 50 race victories and two team owner championships. Johnson remained connected to his moonshine roots despite his racing achievements. He credited his past moonshine-running escapades for his NASCAR triumphs.

Johnson formed his own racing team and launched a range of country-style foods, including fried pork skins and country ham. As a team owner, he mentored budding drivers, shaping the next generation of NASCAR talents. Today, Johnson’s legacy straddles both the moonshine and NASCAR worlds.

Amons Owens

Amos Owens

Amos Owens, known as the “Cherry Bounce King,” was a legendary moonshiner born in Rutherford County, North Carolina, in 1822. Celebrated for his hard work and fearlessness, Owens worked hard from a young age. By 23, he earned enough to buy a 100-acre parcel on Cherry Mountain. In time, he acquired the entire mountain.

Owens’ fame stems from his signature creation, the Cherry Bounce. This fruity liquor is a blend of corn whiskey, cherries, and honey. It was so sought-after that it found buyers as far south as Mississippi and north as Ohio. Bootleggers throughout the region relied on his high-quality moonshine. Owens was capable of producing up to 40 gallons daily. Despite many brushes with the law, Owens continued his craft until age 70.

Charles Folias

Charles Folias

Charles Folias was another well-known moonshiner during the Prohibition era, who operated out of White County, Tennessee. Despite multiple attempts, Folias was always able to evade authorities and revenue collections. This was due to the unique location of his moonshine stills. Folia constructed an intricate distillery in an underground cave which aided him in evading authorities for most of his tenure. He was finally apprehended during a raid in which he was unable to escape when a vipers’ nest blocked his path.

Buck O'Hairen

Buck O’Hairen

Buck O’Hairen was a famous North Carolina moonshiner known for his drink, “O’Hairen’s Sunshine.” This was a blend of vegetables, ginger, blackberries, and topped with soda water. O’Hairen advertised his product as a cure for hangovers and made a small fortune selling it across the state. Prior to producing “Sunshine,” O’Hairen was said to produce around 60 gallons of 180 proof whiskey per day! However, a wildfire started from an explosion at his moonshine still, causing O’Hairen to have a change of heart after it was deemed an act of arson.

The tales of Prohibition-era moonshiners narrate an unforgettable chapter of American history. Figures like Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, Al Capone, Robert Glenn Johnson Sr., Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, Amos Owens, Charles Folias, and Buck O’Hairen stood at the center of this timeline. 

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a moonshining legend, etched his name in history with his charismatic persona. At the same time, notorious gangster Al Capone, despite his many criminal operations, couldn’t resist the allure of Smoky Mountains. The lives of Robert Glenn Johnson Sr. and his son, Junior Johnson, were equally compelling. Born into the moonshining trade, Junior Johnson utilized his exceptional driving skills to evade the authorities and carve out a successful NASCAR career. Meanwhile, Amos Owens, the “Cherry Bounce King,” created an iconic blend of liquor across several states. Charles Folias and Buck O’Hairen also added their unique chapters to this fascinating history.

The lore of these famous moonshiners continues to fascinate us today. It reveals the layers of a uniquely American sense of rebellion and survival instinct. So, while visiting the distilleries scattered across Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Sevierville, make sure to raise a glass to these Prohibition-era legends and celebrate their audacious spirits!

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About Andy Rowe

Andy Rowe is an experienced Writer and Content Designer with a passion for storytelling. He earned his Masters of Business Administration while living abroad in Taiwan and has spent the past 6 years honing his skills in copy writing, social media content, and thought leadership. Andy has a talent for research and the ability to adapt this writing style to different audiences. When he’s not writing, Andy enjoys traveling, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and reading.

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