Moonshine used to be big business in the South, an illegal business that also kept the federal courthouses busy. Now one of those facilities, once on the front lines of the war on homemade booze, is shutting down.
It’s in Wilkesboro, N.C., where distilling corn whiskey in backwoods breweries was once the town’s main trade. The Johnson J. Hayes Federal Building sticks out in the town; it’s a modern white structure with sleek columns on an otherwise old-school brick Main Street.
The courtroom on the second floor is locked up with the lights off all but one or two days a month now. But this building saw a lot of action in the 1970s, even though just 2,000 people lived in town.
“In its heyday, it was a hub of activity,” Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore says. “It had vitality that brought people to the downtown. Sometimes for the right reasons, other times for the wrong reason.”
For a lot of people, that wrong reason was getting caught brewing and smuggling illegal whiskey, also known as moonshine. Wilkes County at one time was known as the moonshine capital of the world, says Jennifer Furr, director of the Wilkes Heritage Museum just down the street from the courthouse.
On display in the museum are both intact moonshine stills you might see in the woods and stills after they’d been busted up by federal agents — known as “revenuers.”
The revenuers busted moonshine stills for what is now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. About a dozen agents worked out of the courthouse’s basement in the 1970s.
Bob Graham was one of those agents, but hasn’t been back to the courthouse in decades. Most of his old office is locked, but one room in the back he distinctly remembers — the one where they kept the confiscated alcohol.
“Liquor, moonshine; we only kept samples of the different seizures,” Graham says.
Graham says the room used to be stocked with gallon jugs and quart-size bottles, and he swears they’d dump them out after testing for chemicals. Now, it’s a storage space filled with boxes.
Graham’s boss back then, Bob Powell, still lives in Wilkesboro with his wife, Betty. Powell has a lot of stories about the revenuers, and says it felt like they were catching people about every 10 minutes.
Priorities changed, however, and the basement office closed in the 1980s. The ATF left town to focus on violent crime in big cities, and locals say it’s been a long time since the court was as busy.
The Johnson J. Hayes Federal Building is just one of six federal courthouses closing in the South. The other five are also well past their glory years, and are all scheduled to shut down within a year or two.