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Booze for Al Capone: archaeologists study SC illegal moonshine sites near Charleston

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Volunteer Stuart Greeter (left) and University of Tennessee archaeologist students Katherine Parker and Nate Fosaan dig inside the remains of a submarine style still site as they search for the history of making moonshine in the Francis Marion National Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

MONCKS CORNER – Archaeologists believe they've found the remnants of illegal liquor stills in the Francis Marion National Forest from the mid-1920s that belonged to a man who worked with famous gangster Al Capone to run moonshine out of South Carolina.

And while curious Lowcountry residents know a lot about moonshining history in Berkeley County, not a lot has been documented. So a group of archaeologists is working to fix that by putting together a puzzle of charcoal and pieces of metal found in the forest.

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As volunteers, like Stuart Greeter (left) and archaeologists Katherine Parker and Josh Duncan remove layers of the forest floor. The team found brick remnants, possibly from a campsite, as they searched for the history of making moonshine in the Francis Marion National Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Berkeley County was the most active spot in the Palmetto State for moonshine during Prohibition, according to previous reports. Specifically, Hell Hole Swamp in the forest reportedly supplied liquor to cities across the country.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, South Carolina’s state tax on legal liquor was one of the country’s highest at $4 a gallon. So moonshining continued, and the state became a leader for illegal liquor production.

Upstate native Katherine Parker said moonshining in the Lowcountry has not received much attention from archaeologists. She has decided to research the region's role during Prohibition and beyond as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Tennessee.

"A lot of archaeologists tend to write these off because they think they're, you know, too recent to really bother about, or there's too much documentary evidence that we don't need to do archaeology," Parker said.

She believes a lot of the history of moonshining in the Charleston area is missing, including the extent to which illicit distilling happened and who did it.

Unlike documentary evidence, archaeology examines the items people leave behind instead of things they intentionally write down or preserve. And unsurprisingly, not much was written down about what went on in the woods.  

"Most of the information that we can find out about the stills themselves and the people that were there has to come from archaeology because there's just not a real good paper trail," said Jason Moser, district archaeologist with the Francis Marion National Forest.

In November, Parker and a team walked the forest for a couple of weeks and located seven more stills on top of the five known sites there. She saw an opportunity to use archaeology to get a more balanced and complete version of the area's moonshine history.

A few weeks ago she and about 10 volunteers spent five days trekking through the forest with hopes of unearthing new details. The volunteers included other students from the University of Tennessee and South Carolina residents with an interest in archaeology.

The group spent most of their time digging around an old still believed to have once belonged to the Villeponteaux family.

Benjamin Villeponteaux had a house near the forest and was one of the bigger moonshiners in the area. It is believed he worked with Capone to distribute beyond South Carolina.

Newspapers have reported on a 1926 shootout in Moncks Corner between Villeponteaux and a rival faction led by moonshiner Glennie McKnight. McKnight’s brother and an associate died as a result.

To get revenge, McKnight became an undercover agent to take down Villeponteaux and helped lead a federal raid into Hell Hole Swamp.

Parker believes Villeponteaux’s still, which has been studied by her group, was probably used by others after him.

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Josh Duncan unearths bricks found at a still site at an archaaeology project in the Francis Marion National Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The archaeology team located cinderblocks, a metal barrel, a green garden hose and a couple pieces of metal trash at the site. Parker got an architectural historian to date the cinderblocks. Based on the dimensions and material mixed into the build, the blocks could date back to the 1920s.

Jacob Broome, a volunteer from Chester, spent some of his time at the site looking for sheet metal and charcoal to see whether there was evidence of a firewall to heat the still container and the mash inside.

He said archaeologists would want to find evidence that the former operators heated the site, because that isn't something they would document.

University of Tennessee student and South Carolina native, Katherine Parker, is tracing the paths of moonshine made in the Francis Marion National Forest.

"It's highly illegal, it's not something you write down," Broome said. "It's something that's passed down in the family, orally. Otherwise, it's not recorded."

Artifacts were limited at the site.

"We're hopeful that if this is possibly like a camp area where people who are running that still would be hanging out while it works, then maybe we might find some more personal items like buttons or comb pieces and things like that,” Parker said.

Stills were normally situated near water and by railroads back when moonshining was in its prime. Parker and her crew found a well at least 12-feet deep near the still site. Since the still was not on a creek, Villeponteaux and others were probably able to get enough water for their work by pumping it from the well.

It wasn’t just the wealthy folks who ran moonshine operations in the Charleston area. Parker said people of all classes and cultures participated. A group of African American families in the Alvin community were also moonshiners.

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Katherine Parker walks through the Francis Marion National Forest to the archaeology site where she found a moonshine still Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Parker, working on her dissertation at the University of Tennessee, is researching the role moonshine played in the Lowcountry, finding several sites throughout the forest. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Parker started working with Alvin residents in November to get a better sense of what moonshining looked like for their ancestors, some of whom were enslaved in the Lowcountry.

"They were saying, 'yeah, you know, a lot of our ancestors were making alcohol. You know, making moonshine up here, too,'" Parker said. "Much smaller operations than maybe some of the White planter families that made moonshine did, but still very much a part of that culture as well."

Many people who weren’t from Moncks Corner came to the area and profited off of moonshine, too, Parker said. The social and economic fabric of the area was changed in the 1920s for a number of reasons, including an increase in commercial game hunting and phosphate mining.

Moser said the staff at the Francis Marion National Forest won't know how many liquor stills are actually there unless they survey the entire area. But Parker has a good sample, he said.

Part of the Forest Service's mission is to record and preserve important archaeological sites. There is often decent historical documentation on sites like homesteads and plantations, but not as much history has been recorded on moonshine stills.

As Parker's research moves forward, she will work to collect more data and create a baseline of the Lowcountry's history from an archaeological standpoint. The goal is to determine how the moonshining experience varied by the production’s era and size and the race of those who were producing the liquor.

Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.

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