Thursday, July 30, 2009

Part of what makes the Carolina Piedmont such a distinctive area within the South is the ancestry of its inhabitants. While other parts of the Carolinas are filled with large populations of folks with English, French-Huguenot, West African, and German heritage, ours is largely Scots-Irish. So understanding the characteristics of the Scots-Irish is vital to understanding the cultural heritage of the Carolina Piedmont. The continuity of this culture is so strong that it's even been said that if you want to meet the Scots-Irish, just go find a redneck!

While for some, the terms "redneck" and "hillbilly" conjure up negative stereotypes, for others, they can be a source of pride and a basis for identity. After all, the backwoods hicks of South Carolina pioneered this remote frontier in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, defeated the British Army at the Battle of Cowpens, stood up to unbalanced tariffs during the Nullification Crisis, fought and sacrificed for Southern independence, formed the backbone of the 19th and 20th century textile economy, and have given their sons and daughters to the causes of liberty and justice around the world. In fact, one of the strongest threads that runs through the combined histories of the Scots-Irish pioneer and the Carolina hillbilly is their fierce independence.

Many historical chapters illustrate the independent streak of our local population, but I was reminded of one recently when the museum accepted a rather large artifact into its collection. We were given an heirloom that had been passed down in the donor's wife's family since 1928, when Deputy Sheriff John William Becknell retired from the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Department. As a retirement gift, the officers of the Sheriff's Department presented Mr. Becknell with a copper whiskey still that had been confiscated during a raid in Spartanburg earlier that year. His family kept the hand-forged copper vat until donating it recently.

Homemade spirits have been produced locally since shortly after crops were first grown by Scots-Irish settlers, and despite taxes, laws, and violence, moonshine remained a part of the backwoods way of life. Folks who have studied this topic in the context of Southern history and economics will tell you that moonshine is, in many ways, a product of the Piedmont and Appalachian landscape. When small-scale farmers were able to produce anything beyond what was needed for basic subsistence, transportation became one of the biggest roadblocks. Transporting crops to market is difficult for isolated communities linked only by hilly, mud-filled roadways, and crops might spoil by the time they reached a market. It was far easier and more cost-effective to repackage your corn and grains into a substance that was more compact, brought in good revenue, and would keep unspoiled for years. Moonshine was just such a substance. When homemade spirits became taxed, regulated, and eventually outlawed, it pitted independent-minded locals against agents of the government, a common theme in local history. These battles between moonshiners and "revenuers" intensified during Prohibition, when distilling whiskey became especially profitable for farmers still reeling from the arrival of the boll weevil. Even now, raids do occur, although changes in the economy, and the overall decline of rural life have all but squelched the moonshine tradition. This time, though, it's being given up voluntarily.

Chalk up another victory to redneck independence!

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