Out of the woods and into a museum this weekend

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 8, 2002

A part of Alabama’s underground history will be on display at the Shelby Iron Works Festival this weekend, Oct. 12-13.

A real Alabama moonshine whiskey still will be on display in the museum at the Iron Park on the site of the Historic Shelby Iron Works.

Whiskey making was one of the earliest manufacturing enterprises in the development of the United States. The conversion of corn into drinkable alcohol turned an ordinary and bulky farm product into a more compact and a far more saleable one.

The tradition of whiskey making (and, one must suppose, of drinking it) and an innate American opposition to paying taxes followed the frontier as it moved west and south. Aside from Mobile, Alabama was not open to development until the removal of the Creek Indians after their defeat by Andrew Jackson’s forces at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

What is now Shelby County was settled shortly afterward as farms were carved from the forests in the river valleys.

Those early farmers grew food for their families and cotton and corn to sell. And there is considerable evidence that not all the corn was baked into cornbread to feed the farmers’ families or their livestock.

There is an old but almost unspoken tradition of whiskey making in Shelby County

&045; long officially one of the state’s dry counties.

The Vanderslice and Schrader families long operated water-powered grist mills in the Bay Springs Community five miles south of Shelby. Louannie Schrader Bridges (born in the family home in 1893) had a favorite family story:

&uot;It seems that a known moonshiner came to the grist mill to have his corn ground to make mash for his still. Grandfather refused &045; the ladies of the family preferred to think his decision was due to moral superiority.

&uot;Again, it may be that the financial arrangements did not satisfy the country businessman. Or perhaps the job would have required some adjustments of the millstone that he did not wish to bother with. Or perhaps he just was ornery. In any case, he refused to grind the corn for mash. And the next night the mill burned down.&uot;

Apparently, Shelby County whiskey makers took their work seriously. So did state and federal agents enforcing liquor laws and, while it lasted, the nation’s prohibition law. Illicit stills were searched out and destroyed.

In reality, there was more than federal and state taxes involved &045; illegal whiskey made improperly could sicken and even kill those who consumed it.

Today, with tighter law enforcement and the wide availability of legal liquor, whiskey stills are harder to find. The specimen on display in the Shelby Iron Park Museum is not historic, but it does illustrate the traditional process. It was made available by the cooperation of Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board agents in Mobile and Shelby Counties.

Sgt. Ralph E. Goff of the ABC Board of Enforcement Division confiscated the still in a raid in north Mobile County in 1992.

Agents used the still for demonstrations and training until Sgt. Goff retired. Agent Hal Taylor of the Board’s Columbiana office made arrangements for the transfer of the still to the Historic Shelby Association.

At the festival this weekend all the usual pioneer activities will be featured: the antique sawmill producing boards, the grist mill making corn meal, a syrup mill producing sorghum syrup by the old-fashioned pan method.

There will be blacksmiths in action at the shop.

There will also be exhibits of candle dipping, lye soap making, hominy cooking and other old-time crafts.

There will be all-day gospel music with a sprinkling of blue grass and country music, and there will be activities and games for children and the young at heart including &uot;hoss&uot; shoes and Hula Hoop. And the kitchen will be open with beans and greens &045; and burgers for &uot;the hopelessly citified.&uot;

The Iron Park is five miles south of Columbiana on Shelby

Highway 42, just west of Shelby 47.

The Shelby Iron Works was Alabama’s largest producer of Confederate iron, home of Alabama’s first rolling mill and home of the largest charcoal blast furnace in the South