Saturday, May 29, 2010

American Whiskey Makers and Takers: George Washington, James Madison, and Uncle Cleo

James Madison
Whiskey Taker and Constitutional Thinker
(Image from Wikipedia)

According to Daniel Okrent, in The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, as reported by David Oshinsky in "Temperance to Excess" (New York Times, May 13, 2010), Americans have long had a strong constitution for alcohol:
Americans have always been a hard-drinking, freedom-loving lot. George Washington had a still on his farm. James Madison downed a pint of whiskey a day, a common practice at a time when liquor was safer than water and cheaper than tea.
I suspect that boiling the water would have been cheaper than whiskey, but who am I to object to what America's Founding Fathers were up to? After all, my own paternal ancestors were moonshiners. Some readers will recall this Ozark story about my Uncle Cleo:
One of the local moonshining families whose surname "Hiram" was pronounced "Harm" offered my 13-year-old uncle a job keeping an eye out for the law. He must have done a good job because he was promoted to run moonshine as soon as he was old enough to get a driver's license.

That was about as far as he got in the business, however, because one time he was running some moonshine along an unpaved back road when he saw the sheriff's car coming up from behind. Ordinarily, he would have kept his wits about him, but because he had a pistol on the seat, he panicked and sped off in a cloud of dust. The sheriff gave chase.

My uncle could see the sheriff gaining on him and decided that he'd better get rid of the gun if he wanted to avoid prison, so as he was crossing a low-water bridge, he tossed his pistol into the water.

That, at least, was his intention, but the pistol hit a rock and bounced back up onto the bridge, where it caught the sheriff's eye. As the sheriff stopped to confiscate that evidence, my uncle eluded capture.

But his narrow escape made him think about his life and what he wanted from it. He told himself, "If I go on like this, I'll end up dead or in prison."

Figuring that the law was coming for him, he left home the next day, signed up for the army, and was off to boot camp. Six months later, he had leave to visit his Ozark home. All dressed up in his uniform, he went downtown to impress the girls. As he was flirting with them on the town square, the sheriff noticed and called out to him from across the courtyard:
"Cleo," he said, "I've got your gun if you want it."

"No thanks," my uncle called back, "they gave me another one."
That was many, many years ago, but Uncle Cleo is still alive, though just barely hanging on at nearly 95 (born October 12, 1915), for he's getting very frail and is currently in the hospital. His grand-daughter Rachel, who's helping care for him, recently emailed to let me know that she'd read the anecdote about her grandfather:
When I came across your blog and read the moonshine story I laughed because I could actually hear his voice flippantly telling that Sheriff that the Army gave him another gun.
She visited him in his hospital room a day or two ago and asked him about the story:
I asked him about running moonshine across the county, and he said, "Well I may have dealt in a little whiskey." Then he laughed and laughed. (He never told any of his girls that story.)
Rachel thanked me for the "beautiful words," but they weren't my own, as I explained:
I'm glad that the moonshining story posted on my blog was a source of delight for Uncle Cleo. I first heard it from Aunt Pauline, then Uncle Cranford offered more details.
Since posting that moonshining story five years ago, I've learned that while Uncle Cleo may have done some moonshine-running for the Hiram family, he was actually working more with the Hodges family itself, for in a somewhat variant version of the tale, Cousin Bill Hodges informs us:
Grandma Nora told me a little wine was made on the [Hodges] farm, and would then laugh and chuckle, and would never finish telling the rest of the story. Her brother Elbert Stephens and [Grandpa] Horace's brother, Rev. Robert Hodges did run a moonshine operation on the Hodges farm near Elizabeth[, Arkansas] . . . .

Dad recalls the still operation being shut down by the county sheriff, stating, "We heard the shots, and after the law left, us kids went to the woods and saw the barrel shot full of holes."

Dad's brother Cleo acted as a "watchdog" and did a little moonshine running for Elbert and others in Fulton County[, Arkansas]. Cleo's moonshine running ceased after he was being pursued by the county sheriff and tossed the pistol he was carrying out of the car window while crossing a low water bridge. The sheriff stopped and retrieved the pistol. Cleo joined the Army to avoid prosecution by the county sheriff. Following training, six months later, Cleo returned to Viola, strutting around in his Army uniform, and [when] the sheriff told Cleo, "Cleo, I've got your pistol," Cleo replied, "Don't need it sheriff, the Army gave me another."
Some folks might object that what Uncle Cleo and the rest of my Ozark clan were doing was highly illegal, especially for a dry county, and I don't doubt that Uncle Cleo would agree, but whiskey making and taking has an illustrious American pedigree going back to George Washington and earlier, and since most people agree that Prohibition was a historic mistake (and 'prohibition' lasted on in many counties of the Arkansas Ozarks), then I think that we're justified in extending Uncle Cleo and my kinfolk a bit of indulgence.

And for anyone who wants to leave a message of encouragement for Uncle Cleo's grand-daughter, Rachel, who's helping care for Uncle Cleo in his decline, feel free to do so here in the comments.

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At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cleo also related to me the story of the sheriff and the moonshine still.
I think it was the one run by my dad's & mother's brothers.
He and "Shine" Owens went to the still, and were walking around, when Cleo noticed someone hiding nearby behind a tree. He & his buddy began casually looking around, and there was the sheriff and some deputies out there watching them.
So the kind of drifted away, and likely told my two uncles to stay away.
The sheriff & posse wrecked the still.
My mother said her brother blamed Cleo, and made him work on his farm to help pay for the damages.


At 11:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Uncle Cran, for the details. Aunt Pauline told me that story, too, but I missed some of the context and didn't quite understand whose still she was talking about. Now, it's becoming ever-clearer (so to speak) just how deeply into bootlegging our family was.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:06 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

My heart and my eyes are full. Thank you all again for your stories and your kindness. Papa (Cleo) loves all of you so very much.


He will go laughing; I have no doubt of that.

At 6:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Rachel. You'll want to hear what Aunt Kathryn wrote to me when she read this blog entry:

"Cleo was always so good to all of us and Mother. He has the most beautiful voice, soft spoken and kind, In fact the other day I was talking to Virginia and she said 'You know that Cleo is the only person that I ever heard that could say son of a bitch and it sounded nice.'

Cleo has a great sense of humor, loves a good joke. We were always so glad to see him because we knew we were going to have fun while he was with us."

I can remember him from my childhood, and the memories are good ones.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:55 AM, Blogger Unknown said...


My name is Rev Robert Wright, Editor for, a social network made specifically for Christians, by Christians. We embarked on this endeavor to offer the entire Christian community an outlet to join together and better spread the good word of Christianity. has many great features like Christian TV, prayer requests, finding a church, receiving church updates and advice. We have emailed you to collaborate with you and your blog to help spread the good word of Christianity. I look forward to your response regarding this matter. Thanks!

Rev. Robert Wright

At 6:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"We have emailed you to collaborate with you . . ."

Actually, you didn't email me. You left a comment on my blog, and the comment has no connection to the blogpost's content.

I Googled and found that you have left this same message on many, many blogs, so I doubt that you even read my post on my Uncle Cleo.

Such doesn't make for a particularly good impression.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:54 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You may have heard that Cleo passed at 11:50 A.M. on June 1st, but I wanted to tell you myself. I am trying to find a fitting poem for the program. I would try to write one myself, but my creative energies are exhausted. Do you have any in mind, including anything you have written? I really don't want to use a generic cliche' for Papa Cleo.

At 6:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Rachel, I hadn't heard yet, but I knew that he was very close. Thanks for telling me.

I'll think about your request. When is the funeral?

Meanwhile, I've posted the anecdote that Uncle Cran related.

Jeffery Hodges

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