Friday, April 24, 2009

Strong Enough to Make a Bald Man Raise A Head of Hair.

A couple o' weeks back I posted a story about a moonshiner named 'Popcorn' Sutton who offed himself rather than serve a jail term for what amounts to preserving an American folk-craft. The news struck a chord w/ me for several reasons. One is that moonshine, like a Kashan rug, or a Shaker chair, is a work of art - the ultimate expression (next to fiddle music) of the uniquely American hybrid which results from the commingling of Anglo Saxon and Scotch-Irish culture. Two, good 'shine', contrary to popular belief, is unsurpassed in it’s smoothness ( despite the rough finish) and, in keeping w/ popular consensus, has the ability to completely wreck your shit like the proverbial ‘Hesperus’. As Faulkner once said, "Between Scotch and nothin', I suppose I'd take Scotch. It's the nearest thing to good moonshine I can find." Third - and this is a wholly selfish reason - Moonshine happened to be the livelihood of one of my distant relatives, her rather peculiar history having shaped (for better or worse) the fortunes of my family in the mountains of Tennessee and the neighboring Clinch river valley.

Mahala 'Big Haley' Mullins was my Great (x4) aunt Gincie's oldest daughter, and as the Knoxville sentinel demonstrates, she had a distinction almost as peculiar as her livelihood:

'Big Haley' weighed around 500 pounds, give or take an exaggerated 100 pounds. Though her girth, thought to be the result of elephantiasis, was renowned, tonnage wasn't the thing that immortalized her in the hills. It was moonshine. She and her sons made the finest in the region. In the late 1800s thirsty Kentuckians, Virginians and North Carolinians came by horseback and wagon to haul off loads of Big Haley's best. She made apple brandy from the Northern Spy and Limber Twig, two of the tastiest apples ever produced in the dimpled highlands of Hancock. From the corn came a creation of molecular superiority, a supple elixir, which she either sold by the dipper from a wooden keg or by the jug.

There have been many fetching stories about Mahala Mullins, but there is one that surfaced recently that might be the best yarn of all. In the days of the Whisky Tree, near the ridge in Snake Hollow, if a person felt the need for some liquid stimulation, he would ride by the hollowed out beech tree, put in 50 cents and take out a jug. It was the whiskey honor system. Nobody would ever dream of taking more than what they paid for, or taking any of the money. If they had, they wouldn't have gotten to the end of Snake Hollow.'

Her reputation for fine spirits began to irritate local law enforcement authorities, and a number of federal agents. A new sheriff decided that he would make a quick name for himself and arrest Big Haley. He got a judge, who was familiar with and had sampled some of Big Haley's best to issue a warrant. The old judge smiled as he signed the official papers, handing them over to the new sheriff. 'Don't fail to bring her in,' he admonished the law officer. Armed with the warrant, the sheriff set out for Newman's Ridge. When he got to her log cabin, the sheriff went up to the door, knocked and went on in. He announced that he had a warrant for Big Haley's arrest and had come to take her in. At this point the sheriff discovered one intriguing fact; Big Haley was too big to get through the door. He measured her, measured the door and shook his head. When he returned to town he reported to the judge, 'She's catchable, but not fetchable.'

When she died, the problem arose about what to do about getting her body through the door. They sawed the legs off her bed, boxed it up, and it became her coffin. They opened a hole in the back wall of her chimney big enough to ease the coffin through the fireplace and then replaced the brickwork after the funeral."

Bless you cousin Hailey. I'd drink to you honor, but some assholes from Lancaster finished off my last jar of "Jumpsteady". As for this here record, it’s another no-name guy on another no name label, though he does manage to beautifully capture, with the brush of the fiddle and some shaped-note singing, the essence of a criminalized American pastime. I like to think the 'likker' they are extolling the virtues of might just have come from cousin Haley's stoneware jug. And that, my friends, makes me extremely thirsty.

North Carolina Hills - Fred Mach & Trio

P.S. Popcorn Says "Fuck You!"


Anonymous said...

Mahala Mullins is my Great,great,great,great grandmother. thanks for the info.

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