Arkansas moonshine and church polity in the ’40s

By Gerre Joiner | Published Wednesday, February 10, 2016

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I usually don’t go to the coffee shop on Sundays. Last Sunday, I went to Wal-Mart to buy cookies for an event at the church. Wasn’t sure if I’d see any of my bunch, but I found Delbert White.

Gerre Joiner

Gerre Joiner

For a few days, I’ve tried to remember how we drifted off into a conversation about moonshine whiskey, but we did … drift off into a conversation about Arkansas and being poor and knowing folks who made a pretty good living while providing corn liquor to their appreciative friends and family members.

Delbert was doing most of the talking. I, myself, have never known anyone even remotely connected to the process of distilling or selling “moonshine.”

Delbert was not as sheltered as myself.

  • As a young adult, he knew the individual “out from” Grannis, Ark., who made the best moonshine in the area. Everyone knew this man. Nobody knew where his still was located. As a matter of professional courtesy, nobody asked him where his still was located.
  • Delbert knew the subtleties of marketing moonshine. When the moonshiner would come to town with one stock panel leaning on the other in the back of his 1938 Chevy pickup, the message was clear (if you knew what you were looking for): “I have no moonshine to sell.”

If both panels were installed and upright in the rails of the pickup, the subtle message was, “I have plenty of moonshine to sell, but hurry. I’m on my way to church!”

  • Many times the moonshiner would simply make arrangements with the customer to meet at a certain place/time at which the exchange took place.
  • The going rate, if Delbert remembers correctly, was $3 for a quart. Ten bucks would buy a gallon of the stuff. That seems like a pretty good bit of change for World War II days. I guess the vendor was getting paid well for the risk involved in selling the contraband.
  • Regarding the “getting paid” process: The local lawmen got their share of the money. It was not out of the ordinary to see the moonshiner slipping money into the hands of a lawman, assuring that future batches of ‘shine would be distilled and sold without official intervention of any kind.
  • I was afraid to ask Delbert if he ever bought any moonshine. I wouldn’t want to put him into a situation where he might fib a little.

While we were talking about church and deacons and moonshine and “things that ought not be,” Delbert was reminded of how his folks left the Baptist church many years ago.

His grandparents, the Morgans, were active church folks. One day during this economically depressed time, a young couple found themselves near Grannis without money or hope of help.

Delbert’s grandparents met them and found them to be a very winsome couple with Pentecostal persuasions. They welcomed them into their home, helped them by sharing resources and giving them a place to live for a while.

The Morgans put the couple to work on their truck farm. As a reward for their benevolence, their church withdrew fellowship from Delbert’s grandparents.

We Christians have progressed a lot since the ’40s. That was a time when a person could get into a lot of trouble at church for helping someone who didn’t fit the proper profile. That was a time when the “don’t ask/don’t tell” attitude of the church kept the status of a lot of moonshiners as “members in good standing.”

I kind of wish I’d asked Delbert if he ever bought any ‘shine. He’s never fibbed to me before.

Gerre Joiner is a semi-retired church musician and has lived in Decatur since 1999.

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