Aunt Mertie’s Moonshiners

June 16th, 2009

Carbon Hill, Alabama, 1951, population about 3000, mostly coal miners and farmers. Right smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt, a fact that at times created some unique problems.

Southern folks worked hard and most the time for six-day weeks. Sunday was the Lord’s day, period. Friday and Saturday nights, on the other hand, were for unwinding and getting a little wild. There were all sorts of adult dances and gathering places in the little town. VFW hall, miner’s union hall, and a really nice city park, to mention just a few. However, there was one small detail. No booze. Carbon Hill was located in a dry county — a major threat to happy and meaningful weekends.

Enter Aunt Mertie (she really was my dad’s aunt). She was one of several bootleggers in the county. Legend had it she and her deceased husband had forcibly laid claim to business rights in the little town and had never been challenged again. As long as the county stayed dry, Mertie and her cohorts would turn a profit. That meant that some of that profit showed up in the damnedest places, even in my and little brother’s pockets.

Moonshine, as you know is, homemade liquor. Made with corn, sugar, and TLC. It looks like water, but water it is not. Among its many users it’s known as Shine, Wild Cat, and of course White Lightening. Believe me, those cute names are very misleading. I once accidently drank a full glass of what I had thought was ice water. All southern folks would keep a jug of cold water in the fridge, if they had one. Someone had put a glass of Shine in next to the water jug. I mistakenly assumed there was water in that glass. The rest is history.

Like I was saying, my aunt sold illegal whiskey. It was delivered to her house after dark in one-gallon glass jugs. Delivered by mule and wagon. Mertie’s place was in town and across the road from the city park. An old man drove the mule and wagon up an alley that crossed the back of her property. He’d rein up by the smokehouse door, unlock it with his own key, unload his cargo of ten jugs, lock up, and leave. The old gent would usually make three runs a week. Most times that much Shine was about the right amount. Not everyone liked Shine, so Mertie kept three cases of assorted bonded whiskey in the smokehouse, too. She didn’t deal in beer or wine but could hook you up with someone who did.

So where did I fit into this picture of southern commerce and good times? I was the bottle man, or bottle kid. Aunt Mertie had to have one-pint and half-pint bottles to stay in business. She used only clear, see-through bottles. Me, my brother, and sometimes my cousins would head out from my grandma’s house, pulling our Radio Flyer coaster wagon behind us. We’d hunt bottles until the morning started turning to mid-day. The weather was mostly always warm and sunny but heated up as the sun got to around ten o’clock. The paved roads got so hot that a barefoot kid had to watch for soft sticky tar patches that could burn a blister on that naked foot. We also liked to hunt for bottles in the drainage ditch across the road from my grandma’s place. Looking back, I wonder why we never got snake-bit.

All of us family kids had used the Aunt Mertie bottle trick to get Coca Cola money or picture show money, but we hadn’t gotten into it very seriously because our church-going parents didn’t want us hanging around Mertie’s house a whole lot. Looked bad, you know. When I think back to those days when whiskey bottles were all my mom and dad had to fear compared to the problems of today, I could cry.

Anyhow, as I was saying, that red wagon and Mertie getting in a bottle bind one fine summer weekend was the beginning of it. I remember after collecting nearly a hundred bottles on that first day wondering how there could possibly be any more. Turns out we’d hardly scratched the surface. We discovered early on that nearly every house in town had a bottle stash, but sort of like Easter Eggs you just needed to find them.

More than a few of the town’s drinkers preferred to do it on the sly. They didn’t put their empties with the curbside trash nor did they leave them in the car so the old lady and kids would discover them. Not surprisingly, hubby pitched the empties under the house. He’d on occasion gather them up and get rid of them, maybe even trade for another pint. Also not surprisingly, his wife knew exactly where he hid his bottles and would tell a feller if he offered to haul the wicked things away. Easy as it could get. Our little red wagon got seen in town more than the city police car.

All told, we collected over three hundred of the one-pint and eighty of the half-pint bottles in two days. Mertie bought them all and threw in a tip besides. Me and brother split fifty dollars. We felt bad taking her money and offered half of it back, but she laughed and stuck her little change purse back in her bosom. Patted it, winked, and told us there was plenty more where that came from.

Lowell and me sat out on grandma’s front porch and listened to the noise of Saturday night in town. We’d sit in the old swing and smell hamburgers cooking, listen to music playing and people having fun. Now and then somewhere in the night glass would break and some one would start cussing and carrying on. The freight train would blow through at ten o’clock sharp, whistle screaming but not attempting to slow down. That event usually signaled the end of staying-up time for me and little brother.

Lowell was still just a little kid who followed his older brother, so come bed time he would start setting it up so he could sleep with grandma. She’d say something to the effect of, “Oh, that’s so sweet!” It worked every time! Me, I’d sleep in the middle bedroom alone in a big feather bed with the windows open and once again listen to the night sounds and smell the scent of honeysuckles, wondering how many bottles Aunt Mertie was going to need next week. Maybe I should think about investing in another wagon.

(An earlier version of this article was posted at Old Duggy.)

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2 Responses to “Aunt Mertie’s Moonshiners”

  1. Harvey |


    Another great story well told.

    You make me wish I’d grown up in a small southern town instead of the big city; maybe then I’d have some growing-up stories to tell that would be decent enough for this forum.

  2. Tom |

    Nice story! Brings back a lot of memories. The line about hot asphalt and bare feet — I could just about smell the asphalt.

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