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Roads Gone Wild

Ballad of Thunder Road Written by Don Raye and Robert Mitchum, Recorded by Robert Mitchum

Like old thoroughbreds in their stalls at a racing stable, the aging moonshine-hauling cars of Willie Clay Call sit at the ready in the garage next to his home in the Appalachian foothills of Wilkes County, North Carolina. Their rear suspensions are still ultra-stiff and ready to conceal the weight of more than 100 gallons of white lightning that the cars would haul out of the foothills to Winston-Salem, Lexington, or other points east.

They wait for loads that will never come from creek-side stills that no longer exist. The customers are gone too. The moonshine culture is dead--killed not so much by the persistence of law enforcement as by the spread of legal liquor and ABC stores into previously dry Southernstates and counties.

The backwoods still, an American tradition that predates the founding of the United States, has all but disappeared from the ravines and hollows of the southern Appalachians. "My daddy was a moonshiner, and my grandpa was in it,too."

On the brink of its demise, after flourishing since colonial times, the moonshine business went out in a blaze of iconic glory and real-life drama born of its integration into another uniquely American custom--the hot rod. Big loads, fast cars, and tough law all came together in the '50s and '60s in a pageant of high-speed chases, roadblocks, wildescapes, crashes--and on rare occasions, gunplay. Truly, the roads had gone wild.

Most of the old moonshiners are now up there in years. Call is 65. They could still stir the mash if push came to shove, but making bootleg liquor is some of the hardest work a man can do. Even if the market still existed, they have long since lost the need to bother. But they did quite well for themselves in the underground business, despite the cars that were confiscated, the stills that were blown sky-high, and the pieces of their lives lost to prison terms.

Like any good businessmen, the moonshiners diversified. As the liquor culture died, another prosperous livelihood, chicken farming, arrived in the nick of time to replace it. Most of the former moonshiners now raise chickens for the local Tyson processing plant in North Wilkesboro, a linchpin of the area economy. No one wants or needs white lightning anymore.

The large garage behind Call's house in rural Wilkes County, the self-described moonshine capital of America, contains six '40 Fords with flathead V-8s, a '66 Dodge Coronet 440 with a 426 Hemi, and a '61 Chrysler New Yorker. These are not replicas. "I used all these cars for a-haulin'," Call says. Call has 14 more '40 Fords in another garage, as well as other assorted vehicles. These cars were the tools of his distribution trade, and when those trading days were over, he kept the cars.

The '66 Dodge was one of three he ordered when they were introduced. In the '60s, the cars coming out of Detroit kept getting more powerful and faster, as if they were being custom-made for the moonshiners. "They didn't make but 40 with this engine," Call says. "I bought three of 'em.I got one-and-a-half now." He sold one. The other he lost in a chase soon after he bought it. One of his drivers "drove it into a pond down there in Concord when the revenuers was a-runnin' him," he says. "I ended up getting the motorback. It took several years, but I got it. They'd pulled the engine out of the car and kept it in storage. I had a guy who worked down there and he got it for me." How did he get it? "I don't know," Call says. "Reckon he bought it or stole it, one."

The big-finned, baby blue New Yorker was the type of car a doctor or a lawyer drove, and it was his most effective, best-driving moonshine car. This is the car he'll talk about first and most often. "That Chrysler would go on," Call says. "I've been run many a time in it. But there warn't no race to it. It'd run 180 mile an hour loaded or unloaded, uphill or downhill--it didn't matter. It's probably hauled more liquor than any car that's ever hit the highway."

The New Yorker has logged more than 300,000 miles, either under Call's foot or that of another driver, and taken several bullet holes in its body. "I had it painted about seven or eight years ago," Call says, "and the boy called me and said, 'You know there's a couple of bullet holes in your car?' I said, no, I sure didn't. I figured out where they came from, though. It was back in the '80s."

The dashboard is production, except for one minor modification. Junior Johnson attached a pair of toggle switches just left of the steering column that, when flipped, cut off the brake lights, or the taillights, or both. More than one pursuing lawman ended up in a roadside ditch after overdriving a curve while on Call's tail. "You never did see that car on the road unless it was loaded," Call says. "I didn't keep it around the house or nothin'. I kept it hid."

Call's cars may not be the sleekest hot rods you'll ever see, but their legacy in American car culture is secure. Not only did the moonshiners' livelihood rest on their skill and imagination as car builders and drivers, their very freedom depended on it. "On the race track, you're a-runnin' to beat someone," Junior Johnson drawls. "Out on the highway, you're a-runnin' for your life."

Clay Call never competed in the first Stock Car race, but one day in the early '60s, he took his supercharged '55 Ford out onto the track at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where Fred Lorenzen, the Golden Boy of NASCAR's early years, was practicing. Call says he outran Lorenzen lap after lap.

The cars driven by treasury agents and other law enforcement officers were no match for the moonshiners' cars. "I called the cars the government gave us 'mechanical miscarriages,'" says former federal Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) agent Joe Carter. "But then, we lacked another component they had--the drivers. Those guys could drive a car like you wouldn't believe. By the time they got to be 14 years old, they could out run any officer I knew of. They learned how to drive and they knew every curve, though some of 'em got killed doin' it."

The old '40 Fords, with their flathead V-8 engines, dominated the moonshine scene until the '50s. The most frequent modification the moonshiners made was to replace the flathead V-8 with the biggest Cadillac engine they could find, which happened to be in the carmaker's ambulances. Johnson and Call would haunt auctions for Cadillac ambulances, yank the engine, bore and stroke it to get all possible cubic inches, and slap a supercharger on it. As they say in Wilkes County, that old Ford would go on. As younger men in the '40s and '50s, the moonshiners also tapped intothe burgeoning hot rod scene in Southern California.

Though never caught on the road, Johnson, Call, and many other moonshiners did feel the sting of the law. In the mid-20th century, moonshining was so open in Wilkes County that the federal government built a small courthouse in North Wilkesboro to handle all the criminal cases. It became something of a factory, turning bootleggers into federal prisoners by the score for failing to pay the required federal levies on liquor.

The moonshiners usually pled guilty to the charges against them; local lore claims they were so honest, they'd be told after sentencing when to report for the prison bus and then sent on home. Invariably, when the bus arrived a few days later, the moonshiners would be there waiting for it to take them to prison.

Call lost several automobiles to the feds, as well as seven months of his life. He was convicted on a conspiracy charge in 1960. Unlike Johnson, who was sent to the federal penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio, Call spent his time in a prison set up at Donaldson Air Force Basein Greensville, South Carolina. "I hated to leave down there," he says. "I'da stayed if I'd had a payin'job. I really liked it. Hell, it was an Air Force Base. They fed good in there. I had a vehicle and drove anywhere I wanted to on the base. And I picked me up two or three good customers."

Call continued making and hauling illegal liquor well into the '80s. Today, he's a one-man archive of the culture, including the fleet of moonshine cars he owns, the 40-plus homemade copper cookers he's collected, and the well- hidden "mock" still he has on land he owns back in Wilkes County woods.

Moonshine Runners, History, and Their Cars. Hot Rod . October 2005.

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