by David Cecelski
My great-uncle Everett, I’ve been told, was a legendary bootlegger. He made his reputation more than half a century ago, but I occasionally still meet people who knew him back then. Only last summer, my brother and I met an old acquaintance of Everett’s in Sampson County. The fellow was astonished that we were related to Everett. In his eyes, my great-uncle was sort of a celebrity, the bootlegger who never got caught.
For more than 30 years, Everett ran wide open on the roads of eastern North Carolina. He liked fast cars, he wasn’t short on swagger, and, he was, as people say, a “big talker.” I used to enjoy listening to him. He was married to my grandmother’s youngest sister, Boozie, and they lived in the old Sabiston homeplace at Core Creek, 3 or 4 miles from us.
According to the fellow in Sampson County, my great-uncle had a secret, extra gas tank built into his car’s belly. He said that Everett pumped liquor straight out of that tank into bottles.
Bootlegging was a big business here in those days. During Prohibition, the Atlantic Coastline Railroad brought us carloads of sugar and molasses. They unloaded the barrels at Trader’s Store, 12 miles west of us, at what was then called Havelock Station. At that time, before they built the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in 1942, there wasn’t much here besides pocosin swamps and pinewoods.
The most famous of our local distillers lived in an old community of mostly mixed-race people—black, white, and Indian—at Clubfoot Creek, just across the county line from my family’s homeplace. Their moonshine whiskey was renowned all over the East Coast. “CCC,” people called it—Craven County Corn. And you could order CCC by name in speakeasies as far away as Baltimore.
Most of the backwoods distillers here produced corn liquor, but not all. My friend Eddie Ellis, a first-rate local historian who’s from the town of Havelock (the old Havelock Station), interviewed many of the local moonshine cognoscenti 10 or 15 years ago. According to his sources, a lot of our moonshine actually resembled West Indian rum.
An affection for West Indian-style rum makes good historical sense. In the 17th and 18th centuries, merchants and planters here traded extensively with Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and other sugar colonies in the Caribbean. Back then, no matter what we sent West Indian merchants, all they had (besides slaves) to send back were sugar and molasses, the stuff of which rum is fermented and distilled. Or they sent rum itself. No wonder coastal people here developed a taste for rum and learned the art of distilling rum.
These days a tradition of bootleg liquor making still lives here, though not even remotely on the scale of the old days. Every now and then, though, usually around Christmas or New Years, I do find a gallon jug of hooch on my back porch. I never know who left it and I really have no taste for the stuff. All the same, I do appreciate the thought. If nothing else, it’s a palpable reminder of my great-uncle Everett and how he ran so hard and wild through the night.