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A 1930s liquor haul: Pictured, from left, Jack Hughes, Deputy Arcus Benfield, Sheriff Wilburn
Hughes and Lynn Hughes.
Courtesy of Avery County Historical Museum

Originally published: 2012-08-30 16:32:25
Last modified: 2012-08-30 16:32:25

Our Avery County: The darker side of moonshining in Avery County

Michael Hardy / (

There is a certain mystique when it comes to moonshine. There is the familiar but fanciful image of the hardworking mountaineer who takes his corn, distills it into alcohol, loads it up into a souped-up car and heads to Charlotte, Knoxville or Atlanta to sell a product only made illegal because he did not pay taxes to the government. Even Lulu Belle and Scotty sang about the legendary moonshiner in their hit “Good Old Mountain Dew.” However, there is side of the moonshining industry that is not so glamorous: the heartache and loss that its production brought to the families and local law enforcement. 

One event that illustrates the real dangers of moonshining took place in the Poga section of the area, in 1895, before Avery County was created. According to an article that appeared in The Knoxville Journal on Aug. 21, the Cable family in the Poga area, near the Tennessee-North Carolina line, had “been manufacturing moonshine whiskey, in defiance of the law.” There were several warrants out for various members of the family. 

On Aug. 16, Watauga County Sherriff W. H. Calloway set out to either gain more information, or possibly serve the warrants. Calloway took with him a deputy with by the last name of Greene, and another man from Tennessee by the name of Greenlee. Upon learning that the Cables had “a place of rendezvous, near their father’s house in the woods,” Cable left Greene and Greenlee as lookouts while he set out to find more men. Before he could return, Greene and Greenlee got into an altercation with the Cable boys, with Greene (and possibly Greenlee) firing at the Cables. The Cables eventually made their way back to the father’s home. Greene found “four or five helpers,” and soon thereafter, “they made a rush on the gang, at which time a regular battle ensued.” In the ensuing melee, “About forty shots were exchanged, which resulted in the killing of young Greenlee ... and mortally wounding the old man Cable, who lived till the following Monday.” The brothers Joe and Will Cable were both slightly wounded, while “their mother received three flesh wounds, one in her shoulder, one in her side and the other in her hand.” According to the article, the Cables were armed with “Winchesters, large revolvers, shotguns, etc.” and that they were willing to “fight till death.” In the end, after causing so much mayhem, the Cable boys escaped. 

Sheriff Calloway “was immediately notified” and “began to organize a posse.” On Aug. 19, the group was “busily engaged in ransacking the woods, house, barns, etc., all through the settlement, but to no avail so far.” To make matters worse, The Knoxville Journal wrote that the Cables had “telegraphed for the Potter gang, in Kentucky, to come to their rescue.” The newspaper concluded that the “outlook is that much bloodshed will be the result in the end, especially if the Potter desperadoes arrive in time.”

The shootout in Poga was not an isolated event. In 1917, according to Charlotte Observer, authorities from Morganton and Statesville busted up a still in Avery County that had a capacity of 100 gallons of liquor. The Greensboro Daily News had additional details: the still was about one mile from Ingalls, along Three Mile Creek. Herbert and Brown Ingram were arrest for “manufacturing what is known as good liquor.” Also in the Greensboro newspaper in 1922 was the story that Mrs. F. P. Benfield, the “mother of six children,” was arrested for having a still in her home. Charleston Daily Mail (West Virginia) reported in August 1933 the arrest of Edgar Aldridge, who had allegedly taken shots at and wounding officers attempting to break up his still back in Avery County. In this particular incident, Sheriff Wilburn Hughes, with deputies Adam Wiseman and Roby Shoemaker, were in the process of carrying out the pieces of a still when they were ambushed. All three officers survived. 

While the newspapers today have articles about men and women who have turned to the manufacture of illegal drugs, there can still be found the occasional story of someone, even our neighbors, being caught running a little white lightning. Though it might be pleasant to romanticize such lawbreakers, stories from the past remind us that the practice of moonshining often has very real and tragic consequences.

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