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  • Karen Washburn


Updated: Sep 6, 2020

A Dangerous,

But Lucrative Business

The eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect on January 19,1920, instituting a national prohibition of the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol for human consumption. Called the “Noble Experiment”, this law had been sought by many citizens for almost a century. The proponents of the law had high hopes that the ban on alcohol would bring relief to the wives and families of men who over indulged and often drank up the family income.

Prohibitionists thought that the problem would be solved by simply removing the source. Their view turned out to be very over simplistic. While the amendment prohibited the sale of alcohol, it failed dismally in eradicating its manufacture and consumption. For many drinkers it was only a change in the quantity and quality available.

The “Noble Experiment” not only failed to accomplish the goal of national sobriety but also provoked the disastrous side effect of creating a new and bloody crime wave worse than any witnessed before. In many large cities the importation and distribution of liquor was taken over by powerful organized criminal gangs, and individuals known as bootleggers. Chicago being the most notorious for this gang activity. While the gangs of Chicago, wielding machine guns and automatic rifles, were far removed from Virginia, that did not mean that Northern Virginia did not have its own sources for the forbidden liquor.

A major difference was that instead of importing fine Scotch and Irish whiskeys, Northern Virginians made their own. Rather than the big business of the city bootleggers, a very lucrative cottage industry developed. And while the area did not have gangs or gang warfare, and machine guns were not common in the Virginia countryside, there was still plenty of violence connected with the illegal distilling and selling of alcohol.

Local sheriffs aided by Federal agents constantly conducted search and destroy missions to locate liquor manufacturing operations that were scattered throughout the farm country. Sometimes the result was just the destruction and confiscation of the equipment and product. At other times bloody gun battles occurred that resulted in the killing of both law officers and the men running the illegal operation. Today it is hard to believe that violent murders took place in what is now River Bend Park in Fairfax or at Belmont Plantation in Loudoun. But they did.

Alcoholic beverages had always been readily available in Virginia from the time of the earliest settlements. By the 1700s many Virginia plantations had facilities to distill whiskeys, make wine, and brew beer for their own use. For those that wanted to purchase drinks, there were taverns in the towns and ordinaries along the main roads, where travelers could stop for a meal, a drink, and a bed for the night. These establishments were licensed by the county governments, not as an attempt to control sales of alcohol, but merely a convenient method to collect the taxes levied on it.

The taverns and ordinaries were supplied with liquor by commercial dealers. Great Falls

had two legal distilleries that furnished liquor to taverns along the Georgetown and Leesburg pikes. In the early 1800s there was one at Woolington near the Potomac on Seneca Road in Great Falls. A century later, a commercial distillery was located at the intersection of Seneca and Beach Mill Roads.

Considering the effects and availability of alcoholic beverages, it is no surprise that there was strong opposition by some people to the sale and distribution of liquor. On market days when farmers went to town to sell their produce, some spent the money on drinks. And excessive consumption of alcohol often led to violence both in taverns and at home, with poverty as an additional side effect.

The anti-alcohol movement began in Virginia as early as the 1820’s with the formation of local temperance societies. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that these societies gained enough members to have real political clout. Then politicians running for state and local offices began to run on “dry” platforms.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century there were mixed feelings in local communities regarding the “dry” issue. Virginia residents sent many petitions to the Virginia General Assembly requesting the prohibition of alcohol. However, it is hard to know what true public opinion was because the “wet” proponents were not as likely to make as much noise as those who advocated “dry”.

After years of petitions, Virginia’s governor finally called for a statewide referendum on the issue. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of “dry”. Thus Prohibition came to Virginia in 1916. This gave Virginians a head start over other jurisdictions in developing the new cottage industry of distilling their own liquor or moonshining as it was called.

The new industry immediately took off in both Fairfax and Loudoun counties. The farm country provided most of the necessary items to produce good batches of moonshine. It is not known if the name came from the time of day when most of the production work was done or from the effect that the product had on those who drank it. It was also called as “corn likker” or “white lightening”. The latter obviously due to its immediate effect on the drinker of this very high proof alcohol. The main ingredients of moonshine were either corn or rye, both readily available, and sugar which had to be purchased at the store. A good distillery, known as a still, was made of copper with tubing to siphon off the distilled product which was often put up in mason jars.

The new business entrepreneurs had to be careful when buying their supplies if they wanted to avoid attracting the attention of the law. The purchase of too much sugar, too many unexplained feet of copper tubing, or too many mason jars could trigger an investigation by the sheriff. To avoid detection, some still operators collected and reused old bottles of various types. This early recycling program seemed to work well.

Most moonshiners set up their stills in out of the way places to avoid detection by the local authorities. Others were more brazen and put them in fairly public places. There were numerous areas in Northern Virginia that met the secrecy requirements. The Great Falls area was considered by many to be a perfect location. It had a small population and it was a long way from the sheriff’s office in Fairfax. As a result, it became a haven for moonshiners. It is not known exactly how many stills were located there, but the number that were discovered is impressive.

Some of the more remote ones were on islands in the river across from what is now River Bend Park and at the top of Seneca Road. Another was located on the north side of Potomac Ridge Road, near the intersection of River Bend and Beach Mill roads. There were several different operations secluded in the deep woods of what is now Great Falls Park.

Fairfax Officer Finks with moonshiners and still. Police Historical Association Photo

Moonshining was dangerous. Getting arrested was only one risk. Other dangers included being shot by the law, rival still operators, or irate customers. And the process of distillation, if not done carefully, could cause injury or death by explosions or fires. Occasionally some became ill from lead poisoning caused by drinking moonshine that had been distilled through an old car radiator instead of a copper still. All in all, it was a very hazardous occupation.

In the Great Falls area numerous moonshine entrepreneurs lost their businesses to

disasters. In one case, three men were operating their still in a building that housed a steam powered grist mill, right in the center of the community of Forestville. As this was a rather brazen thing to do, they may have believed that the distinctive smell of cooking mash would be disguised by the grain milling operation. That business came to an abrupt end when the still started a fire that burned the entire building.

Another trial by fire occurred in January 1929 in an area near Georgetown Pike when the still ignited and burned down not only the building that it was in, but also the neighboring house. That still operator went to a Federal prison. Evidently his sentence was not too long because he was soon back in business on a new site on Potomac Ridge Road near the Potomac. There he dug out an underground area for the still building and planted the roof with laurel bushes to match the surrounding forest. But his attempts at camouflage were not good enough. He ended up back in prison.

The site of another still that blended better with the scenery was on Innsbruck Avenue about a half mile in from Georgetown Pike. A neighbor reported to the deputy sheriff that a still was working there. When the sheriff went to investigate, the moonshiner stood in front of his operation and was somehow able to convince him that no such thing was happening there.

Next Time: Moonshine Leads to Murder.

Copyright Karen Washburn 2005

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Sep 08, 2020

very interesting and well written = thanks

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