How did Franklin County become the Moonshine Capital of the World?

A look into white lightning’s impact on this Southwest Virginia county

(Twin Creeks Distillery)

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Va. – When you think of Franklin County, what do you think of? Some would say Smith Mountain Lake, others would say moonshine — and with good reason.

Franklin County actually has a world title: Moonshine Capital of the World. But how exactly did it earn that title?

To answer that, we’ll have to take you back to the 1880s when moonshine was abundant in Franklin County.

The United States taxed alcohol from 1791 to 1802, then again from 1813 to 1817, but after that, alcohol went untaxed for the next 45 years. It wasn’t until the Civil War happened that Congress passed a whiskey tax, which reached $2 per gallon of liquor. At that point, the county had dozens of stills.

In an effort to bring down crime, Prohibition hit on Nov. 1, 1916. However, the law posed the opposite effect, leading to illegal drinking and liquor production.

That’s when locals gave the county its title of “Moonshine Capital of the World,” as moonshine production and bootlegging kept the economy afloat. White lighting soon became the pride of the county.

“People would have starved to death without moonshine,” said Anna Prillaman, marketing and communications manager at Twin Creeks Distillery in Rocky Mount.

Moonshine was a cash cow for many and it kept families afloat.

“It was a way of life for people. It was just another way to make ends meet,” said Bright Argabright, assistant general manager at Franklin County Distillery in Boones Mill.

Argabright detailed how abundant corn was across farms in Franklin County, allowing for easier access to produce moonshine.

“So many people had cattle. They had fields and fields and fields of corn, so there was always extra corn around,” said Argabright. “With a surplus of it, you have the means to make liquor with it.”

During the 1920s, historians believed that 99 out of 100 Franklin County residents played a part in the moonshine industry.

But with Prohibition repealed in 1933 and the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverages created in 1934, we move on to a huge turning point in the county’s history: The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935.

Moonshine in the Blue Ridge was placed in the national spotlight when local distillers sold a volume of whiskey that could have generated $5.5 million in excise taxes, which is about $95 million today. Cue a federal investigation that ended in 34 people being indicted, including 19 moonshiners, one corporation and nine government officials, according to the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum.

“They were treated like monsters or murderers when they were just making an honest living,” said Prillaman.

Testimonies during the trial recounted how deep bootlegging was in the day-to-day.

At the time, this trial was the longest in Virginia history. Thirty-one people were found guilty and spent two years or less in jail while 13 conspirators only received probation.

A big event like that makes it sound like moonshine would be out of the picture, but it’s simply embedded into the culture.

Let’s fast forward to the 2010s, where moonshine is a little less taboo — and completely legal.

In 2015, Franklin County Distillery in Boones Mill became the first legally licensed distillery in the county since the days of Prohibition.

“What a better spot to open up than the Moonshine Capital of the World? I mean, it’s in its name,” said Argabright.

However, just before Christmas 2015, Twin Creeks Distillery sold the first legal batch of moonshine in the county, and just like that, the hardships endured in the 1930s come full circle for this family-owned distillery.

A bottle of whiskey from Twin Creeks Distillery (Twin Creeks Distillery)

Twin Creeks Distillery is operating decades after Prillaman’s great great grandfather, James Walter “Peg” Hatcher, was actually convicted in The Great Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935.

“Everyone has their connection in some way... You may hear some people say, ‘Oh, my grandpa did it this way or my grandma did it that way,’” said Prillaman. “We’re showing what it meant to our ancestors.”

Both distilleries locally source the ingredients for their firewater, keeping the community and roots of Franklin County in its liquor.

“[Moonshine’s] been here forever, and it will continue to be here forever. It’s pretty much a staple. You can’t be called the Moonshine Capital of the World and just quit,” said Argabright.

About the Author:

Nicole Del Rosario joined WSLS 10 in August 2020.