“In the Still of the Night”

by Mark Blackwell

Alex Mullis went to trial at the Brown County courthouse May 22, 1931. The charge was moonshinin’. Moonshinin’, for those who may not know, is the possession and operation of an unlicensed distillery apparatus. It was a tradition and often an economic necessity for folks trying to scratch a living out of the land in Brown County.

The folks who made the trek to Brown County chose one of the hardest-to-get-to places in Indiana. So they had to bring self-reliance with them and leave self-doubt back where they came from. When they needed a basket, they made a basket. If new clothing was required they carded wool, spun yarn, and wove the cloth. They didn’t have UPS, FedEx, or even decent roads to haul supplies in or produce out in a timely fashion. That left do-it-yourself or do without. And one of the things they didn’t care to do without was liquor.

Whilst studying the history of our county I came across some curious statistics relating to one of the early crafts. Just after Nashville was settled in 1837 there were about 80 folks living in town. There were about eight to ten establishments where one could purchase liquor. There was only one noted distillery, that of a Mr. John Genolin, Sr. According to Goodspeed’s history of the county, “It did a small business for several years.” So, we have about one purveyor of aqua vitae for every ten citizens and only one distillery doing a “small business.” By 1850 the population had more than doubled and by 1880 there were almost 3,000 folks living in Nashville and Washington Township.

Well, now you might ask, “What does this have to do with anything?” And here I will have to quote Mr. Goodspeed again, “…it will be noted that the county seat contained a great many liquor establishments. It was thought nothing of then and cannot be judged by the standard of today. All drank then and rejoiced as the liquor element now does in their personal liberty.”

The county kept on growin’ and folks kept on rejoicin’. My best guess is that in a few decades the rejoicin’ population out-stripped the capacity of the legal distillery and in true entrepreneur fashion more than a few folks saw a need to fill. Nothing suggests there was a large scale temperance movement in the county. I would imagine there were some sermons preached about the evils of intoxication. But then, even the church goin’ crowd has to have something to repent of come Sunday.

It should be mentioned here that the art of distillation requires several talents and disciplines: that of engineer, chemist and master chef, not to mention a certain gift for invisibility. A feller had to know how to put a “still” together. There are different designs but generally it consists of a boiler that sits on top of a laid stone oven, a coiled copper pipe or “worm”, sometimes a tub called a “thumper,” and a filter unit. The moonshiner had to know the proportions of corn, sugar, and yeast to get a good fermented mash. The mash had to be watched, it could take a week or so to ferment properly. After the mash was ready the “wine” had to be siphoned off into the boiler. Even the temperature of the fire for the boiler had to be somewhat precise—if it was too low the alcohol wouldn’t steam off and if it was too hot you got unwanted vapor from the “wine.” A good moonshiner would run a batch off, let it cool, clean out his boiler and run the batch through again. This gave a product that was close to pure alcohol. After the batch had gone through the second time and been filtered through charcoal to cleanse it of any lingering impurities, it had to be proofed. This is where the chemistry comes in. Proofing gives you a fair idea of the strength of the product and how much it should be diluted, preferably with sweet spring water. The aging of the Brown County dew was dictated by how long it took to sell off the run.

Before prohibition in 1921, moonshinin’ was just another profession, therefore the law tended to turn a blind eye—unless and until it was an election year. Then those artisans who engaged in the manufacture of “white mule” and who harbored a political philosophy counter to that of the party in power could find themselves incarcerated. The inventory of their product would be confiscated and sometimes purveyed to the “liquor element” by the sheriff himself.

With the establishment of the state wildlife sanctuary (Brown County State Park) came a state game warden. And the game warden was entrusted with the power to enforce not just hunting and fishing regulations but all state laws within the new park. The land allotted for the wildlife sanctuary also appeared to be ideal for moonshinin’. So, Oliver Neal, the first warden, had his hands full chasin’ down stills. There are more than a few accounts of Warden Neal uncovering secluded whiskey works and more than a few of them presided over by Mullis kin. Alex’s family seemed to have been genetically endowed with a talent for the business. And it was probably Oliver that found Alex’s still.

Moonshinin’ tapered off fairly quickly after Prohibition. The Roosevelt administration ramped up public works programs, roads were improved, transportation became easier and job opportunities increased. Folks had a little more money to buy legal hooch and less time to devote to the old craft. And so a once thriving tradition in Brown County has disappeared along with its colorful characters.

Oh, by the way, Alex Mullis was acquitted by a jury of his customers.