Down in the hollows of Briar Mountain where spring-fed creeks run cold to the Pigg River the "likker" business is being born again.
The price of sugar-key ingredient in moonshine whiskey-is down, the price of moonshine is up and, for the first time since Prohibition, the federal government has decided that it just is not worth it anymore to send ax-toting agents into these rugged hills to chop up stills.
Mindful of opportunity, a new generation of moonshiners here is distilling an estimated 6,000 gallons of whiskey a month. State Alcohol Beverage Control agents, working without the help of the federal government, last month destroyed 31 stills in Franklin County-the biggest monthly toll in 20 years.
Even former moonshiners in this infamously "wet" southwestern Virginia county, where whiskey men turned out an estimated 3 1/2 million gallons of 100-proof glory during a four-year stretch in the 1930s, claim that prime whiskey-making conditions are sorely tempting them to get back in the trade.
"The temptation is great, oh yeah," said Cecil Love, 50, who Virginia ABC agents says was one of the biggest and smartest operators in the county for nearly 30 years.
"Every time I cross a pretty stream of mountain water I think about it. It gets in your blood. I could easy invest in a nice little copper rig, work 16 hours a week and guarantee myself $500 for my time," said Love, who, for the time being, is running a lumber company.
Love said it is likely he will succumb to temptation real soon.
"We have not cleaned up moonshining in Franklin County, not by any means, said federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Don Hall in nearby Danville, Va., where up until January four federal agents had been spending nearly all their time chasing whiskey men.
The federal government decided to "deprioritize" enforcement of federal liquor laws early this year in order to spend more time on interstate smuggling of firearms and explosives, according to George B. Teston, assistant special agent for ATF in Richmond.
The decision also was based on a national decline in illicit whiskey making. In 1965, ATF agents destroyed 7,432 stills. Last year they destroyed just 361.
Franklin County, however, is bucking the trend. ATF agent Hall said the federal withdrawal here has already made it safer to make illegal whiskey. "We have been out of the business for 2 1/2 months and it is already increasing," Hall said.
The state ABC commission now has assigned three agents to Franklin County full time. Wearing forest green uniforms and packing pistols, they hurtle over back roads at all hours in a brown four-wheel-drive rig looking for suspicious indications. They've taken to carrying explosive instead of axes to destroy stills because all the chopping lately has exhausted them, one agent said.
"When you don't have but three officers raiding this whole county [711 square miles], people are naturally going to look at it and figure they can get by a whole lot easier than before," said Cecil Love.
V.K. Stoneman, chief ABC enforcement supervisor for western Virginia, agrees with Love.
"We've got our hands full," said Stoneman, who has been raiding illegal distilleries in Franklin County for 21 years. "We are understaffed and the people inclined to making bootleg whiskey in Franklin County figure it's easier now to get away with it."
And in Franklin County, which has been called the moonshine capital of the southeastern United States, bootleggers and "revenooers" agree there are a lot of residents who are inclined to make illegal whiskey.
"It's just a way of life passed down from generation to generation," said Stoneman. "Some of our most prominent citizens, even to this day, are in sympathy with the moonshiners. Moonshine whiskey paid for the education of many of these people.
"For the most part, the people in Franklin County who make illegal whiskey are the most honest, forthright, industrious people you'll ever meet. They are not the thug element you meet in Washington, D.C.," Stoneman said.
Franklin County Sheriff W.Q. Overton, who is up for reelection this year and has former moonshiner Love working in his campaign, says that moonshiners are a pleasure to have in jail.
"Most of our bootleggers are good inmates. They'll work hard and do what you tell 'em. It's those dopeheads that gives you the problem," Overton said.
Overton is the first former ABC agent ever elected sheriff in Franklin County, population 29,000. That his former occupation, which runs contrary to the vocations of so many Franklin County voters, was not held against him is an indication of the cordial relations here between the "likker" makers and agents whose sworn duty is to put them in jail.
Posie Brown Hale, a 63-year-old former bottlegger who broke down and cried every time he was arrested-all eight times-speaks kindly of the ABC men who have destroyed his stills and put him in jail.
"They's good people just doin' their job. If they catch me with whiskey I know I done wrong. And if I go along with them quiet, they'll tell that to the judge. But if I was rasslin' and fightin' it'd just make it that much harder on me," Hale said.
After most raids on stills here, ABC agents simply tell the men they nabbed to come on down to the court-house in Rocky Mount the next day for an arraignment. Posie Brown Hale said he and his moonshine friends "usually always" show up.
Making moonshine whiskey is a felony under Virginia state law, punishable by up to three years in prison, but a first offender in Franklin County often is given probation. On a second offense the penalty usually is six months in prison. ABC agents here say it is virtually impossible to impanel a jury without having at least one juror who is connected to the illegal whiskey business.
Moonshiners and state agents have what Stoneman calls "an unwritten rule" that there's to be no shooting at each other. Moonshiners will run from a still, said ABC agent Kenneth Dudley, "but if you catch 'em, they're caught."
The 11 alleged moonshiners grabbed in the woods of Franklin County last month represent just a small percentage of the young men being drawn to the business by the increasingly lucrative moonshine trade, said former moonshiner Love.
Good whiskey now will bring about $45 a case (six gallons) when sold to a "runner" right from the still, said Jim Bowman, an ABC agent in the county with 27 years' experience. That price is up about $15 over last year. And the price of sugar, which sold for $60 to $80 for a 100-pound bag during the sugar shortage four years ago, is down to $16 to $20.
Love, who said that his bedroom dresser drawers were usually stuffed with greenbacks when he was making moonshine, said that with today's prices for 'shine and sugar a "man can make hisself $20,000 to $30,000 a year working two days a week" if he has $1,000 to invest in still equipment, corn, mash and sugar.
"That's the way those young boys are looking at it today. They make $3 an hour in the furniture and textile factories around here, and they got to take a lot of punishment from their bosses. You don't have to take nothin back in them woods.
"You can work in the factories where it's hard and pay those taxes or work a couple days a week in the woods, drive down the road with cash in your pocket and have a big time," Love said.
The equipment for whiskey making, according to moonshiners and ABC agents, is readily available in Rocky Mount (population 3,960), where sheet metal shops keep a large supply of copper tubing and other essentials.
Liquor enforcement agent Bowman, whose 27 years of friendly war against "likker" has put him on a first-name basis with nearly every whiskey man in Franklin County, said many businessmen here regard moonshiners as the finest customers there are.
"They pay cash. They don't ask for none of those damn receipts and the businessmen think that is just good business," Bowman said.
The sympathy toward the illegal whiskey trade is so strong in Franklin County, Bowman said, that as soon as he and his men get in their brown Bronco rig and take off through the woods, everybody that has an interest can learn their location over CB radios.
"We can hardly talk over the radio. We have to keep changing our codes 'cause everyone is listening," Bowman said. CAPTION: Picture 1, Posie Brown Hale broke down and cried when arrested-all eight times.; Picture 2, James Taswell Atkins, 57, said he would still be making monshine "if I could lift the sugar bags." By Blaine Harden-The Washington Post; Map, Franklin County By Dave Cook-The Washington Post; Picture 3, Franklin County Sheriff W.Q. Overton, right, has laugh with campaign worker, former moonshiner Cecil Love. By Blaine Harden - The Washington Post