A History of Moonshine Production in Franklin County, VA

History, Quality and Tradition in the Moonshine Capital of the World

Local lore and historical footnotes weave the tale that, during one year of Prohibition, more sugar was shipped by rail to Boones Mill and Franklin County than to New York City. Like many of the early commerce centers in Southwest Virginia, Boones Mill thrived on the railroad line that weaved through its mountain valley, and bootleggers and moonshiners utilized its logistical power to feed its burgeoning new boom business — moonshine. Dwarfing the output of other mountain towns involved in the illegal spirit trade — such as Wilkesboro, NC, and its own moonshine roots, which, like Boones Mill, gave birth to NASCAR — Boones Mill gained the moniker “Moonshine Capital of the World,” a brand that carries staying-power to the present day.

Boones Mill has always been a historical crossroads and place of cultural exchange. The town is located in a mountain pass now home to Highway 220. Some of Southwest VA’s earliest settlers were Scotch-Irish who came through Maggodee Gap along the Iroquois’ Warrior Path. They brought distilling with them. During Prohibition, Boones Mill and the Bondurant Store was the choke point where local bootleggers transferred cargo to syndicates who distributed the product nationally. Today, Boones Mill has a population of 250 but a daily traffic count of28,000. Tourism and the export of local heritage products are vital to the town’s growth and development.

In the 20th century during Prohibition, local wits named the Boones Mill area as the “Moonshine Capital of the World,” as moonshine production and bootlegging drove the economy. Historians estimate that in the 1920s, 99 of every 100 Franklin County residents were in some way involved in the illegal liquor trade. The bootleggers became involved with gangsters from Chicago and other major cities, and some local law enforcement officials werepart of the criminal activities and killing of competitors. Between 1930 and 1935 local still operators and their business partners sold a volume of whiskey that would have generated $5.5million in excise taxes at the old 1920 tax rate. A lengthy federal investigation resulted in indictments and trials for 34 suspects in 1935 for what was called the “Great Moonshine Conspiracy,” which attracted national attention. The writer Sherwood Anderson was among the many outsiders who came to cover the trial. At what was then the longest trial in state history,31 people were convicted, but their jail sentences were relatively light.

This period has recently received new attention by writers. T. Keister Greer’s history The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935 (2002) covered the trial and its background in the county. The writer Matt Bondurant had ancestors in the area, whose exploits during this period inspired his historical novel, The Wettest County in the World (2008). The book was adapted as a film, Lawless, in 2012.

Moonshine remained an underground, illegal, yet romantic trade through much of the20th century, until it found a new legal approval at the tail-end of the century. Now, legal moonshine distillers can be found all over the American South and beyond — yet each lack the historical tradition found in Boones Mill, the moonshine seat of Franklin County. It’s actually quite surprising that Boones Mill has yet to have a legal moonshine business that builds on this history and tradition, but that just changed with Franklin County Distilleries.

Steeped in history and tradition and rooted in quality local craftsmanship, the brand for FCD is strong. As Boones Mill wakes up from its sleepy town moniker, it finds itself perfectly positioned in a customer-rich market location, torch-bearers of a brand that generations already hold dear. Just down the road, Martinsville hums as a hotbed for NASCAR, a sport birthed from the transport of illegal corn liquor, and which attracts a large fan base that cherishes the history from which it sprung. But the real story is what’s happening here — in the cultural chokepoint of Franklin County: Boones Mill, Virginia.

Boones Mill is booming — both in small business and community. The small town— well-positioned in hyper-close proximity to both Roanoke, Rocky Mount, and I-81 — is experiencing a renaissance, if you will, with the appearance of myriad new small businesses, including Hammer & Forge Brewery, Inkular Gallery, Wooden Spoon Café, and FCD … as well as a healthy stable of rising, established businesses, such as Chaos Mountain Brewing and Holly Jo’s Creekside Grill. With all that said, a progressive and available Town Manager, Mayor, and Town Council are adding a motivating support to the development of the new age and identity of Boones Mill. We are blessed and lucky to be ‘here and now.’ Boones Mill is truly “Your Blue Ridge Gateway,” and is quickly becoming a destination with its export of its most significant local heritage product — legal moonshine.

More Moonshine History

The Franklin County Conspiracy
Blue Ridge moonshining found itself in the national spotlight with the so-called Conspiracy Trial of 1935.
Read More Here

The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935
The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935 resulted in the indictment of 80 people involved in the illegal production and distribution of moonshine whisky in Virginia.
Read More Here

Moonshine Capital of the World
Franklin County, VA has been tagged as the Moonshine Capital of the World for its special brand of liquor and the large amounts produced by the county.
Read More Here

Common Blue Ridge Moonshining Terms
I bet you didn’t know these terms were a part of history.
Read More Here

The art of making moonshine lives on in the hills of the Blue Ridge
This is the second of a series of online travel stories based on a recent trip to Roanoke, Va. and the Blue Ridge Mountains area.
Read More Here