This morning I had coffee with my grandmother Gloria (aka Nana) and her husband (my step-grandfather) Lee, in Roanoke, Virginia. Both of them celebrated birthdays this week. Nana turned eighty-eight (though she calls it forty-nine) and Lee ninety-one. Though they both raised families and spent their adult lives in Roanoke, they grew up (though didn’t know each other) in nearby, rural Franklin County.
Nana and her oldest three siblings were born in Pocahontas, West Virginia, where my great-grandfather, Jarvey Mitchell, (a one-time minor league ball player) dug coal and tried to provide for any extended family still tied to an unprofitable tobacco farm back in Franklin County. Sometime around 1930/31, a mine collapsed while my great-grandfather was in it. He managed to get three of his fellow miners to safety before the ceiling buckled and fell, crushing his leg, leaving him in a full body cast for a year and crippled for the rest of his life. No longer able to work the mines, he moved his young family back to his father and mother’s property in Franklin County, where he took up farming and whatever jobs his new disability would allow.
Jarvey settled into the farmhouse where he’d spent his early years before bad crops and financial hardship pushed he and his siblings to seek work the less pastoral pockets of the Blue Ridge. His mother, Della Virginia, had (scandalously) divorced Jarvey’s father, James, and taken up with another man. She moved into a house further down the way on the property. Her ex-husband, Jarvey’s father James, occupied a Spartan room at the top of the back stairs in the farmhouse, in which he daydreamed and entertained his grandchildren with first-person stories of the Civil War (which happened before his birth) and great tales from literature (which, illiterate, he hadn’t read).
The first year the Mitchells spent back in Virginia was a hard one. Jarvey, incapacitated, relied on his wife and very young children to tend to his needs and produce what they could from what was scarcely better than a subsistence farm. Nana, four or five years old at the time, was devoted to her ailing father.
Nana: “I thought my daddy was the handsomest man I’d ever seen. He was tall–6’2 or 6’3–and stood so straight before the accident. He had this shock of dark hair and just looked like a prince. Mother [my great-grandmother, Gladys] told me that the day of the accident I had run out to stand on the porch with him in Pocahontas and just begged him not to go to work.
“After the mine collapse, I used to sit with him for hours beside the bed and get him food and drink and cigarettes. I would just tell him he would get better and Daddy was so kind even though he was so broken and it was the Depression and we were very poor.”
Once he was able to work, Jarvey tried to provide for what was a growing cadre of dependents, including his parents, some of his siblings, his children, at least one adopted child, tenant farmers and various members of the greater community fallen on hard times. It was the Depression and still Prohibition and like many of the men in his notorious-for-illegal-booze county, Jarvey rigged up a still and made whiskey on the sly.
Nana contends that he only made it in small batches “for Christmas and such,” but it seems unlikely. His mother, Della Virginia (who may or may not have been an bootlegger herself), liked her liquor.
Nana: “Grandmother would pour herself a tall iced tea glass full of corn liquor and just sip on it throughout the day. If it got low, she’d refill it. She never seemed drunk. It hardly affected her at all. She used to tell me was just water, but I tasted it once and it burned me all the way down the esophagus. And she just laughed and laughed
“She drank that every day without any problem, but once every ten days or so, she’d be taken with a powerful, nasty headache and Daddy would send me down to her house to put cold cloths on her forehead and tend to her until the worst pain had passed. And by the next day she would be drinking her whiskey out of the water glass again.”
The Mitchell family alcohol production was not limited to whiskey. Nana’s mother, Gladys, made various wines and stored them for cooking and holiday purposes. She gave them to her family members as gifts.
Nana: “We had grapes at the farm at Glade Hill and Mother would make wine and grape juice. Once when I was about ten years old, I went to visit my grandmother [Della Virginia] when she was having one of her whiskey headaches and she poured me a big glass of my mother’s grape juice and told me to drink it. I thought it tasted a little off, but grandmother was insistent that I not waste it.
“When I left to go home that afternoon, I felt sluggish and dizzy. At the end of grandmother’s driveway were two old walnut trees and I could have sworn they were just swaying and dancing in the breeze even though there was no wind. By the time I got back to my house, I had a terrible headache and just thought I was getting sick. My mother took one look at me and said, ‘Honey, you’re drunk!’ and insisted that I go sleep it off on the sofa in the front room.”
My step-grandfather’s family had a more professional approach to alcohol production. Before Lee was born, his father made black market booze semi-professionally way out in the county and had a considerable reputation as a producer of quality corn whiskey (and in some volume). When he and his wife started having children, he left the bootlegging to his brother and moved into Rocky Mount, the largest town in Franklin County, to run a small grocery store.
Lee: “Once my father walked away from the still, he never drank or smoked again. He was the very picture of an upright gentleman.”
And yet despite that, the Lee’s father sold bootleg liquor out of the back of his store throughout Prohibition and beyond. His brother Ed was a regular supplier:
Lee: “My uncle had a quite a system rigged up to avoid detection, for the police were crawling up the hillsides in those days looking for stills. My uncle kept track of the dirt path leading up to the still and could rearrange the dirt and rock just so so it looked like no one had climbed up to the rocky side of the path. His accomplices also had it figured how to send messages through symbols in the path about who was coming or who might come by. He also had this removable hedge–mostly fake–that he could slide in front of the path like a gate so folks would think they’d come to an impassable part of the forest.
“Ed made liquor long after most had quit. He had a partner in the whiskey making named Lefty [ed: maybe Les or Laffy, I couldn’t tell]. They’d get chased by police up and down that road to Callaway and once ended up doing business from the back of a mule when they had to hide the car in a hurry.”
Both Nana and Lee agreed that the most notorious bootleggers in Franklin County were the Hodges, who lived in Glade Hill, not farm from the Mitchells.
Nana: “Willard Hodges was in charge of most of that. He was the richest man in that part of the county and had the nicest house in Glade Hill. They lived in a big old house over near the high school. It was a beautiful Georgian farmhouse with a portico and real –not just old plaster–white columns. They owned the gas station and right much else as well, but the money came from the moonshine and everyone knew it.
“It all ended up being quite tragic. The two Hodges boys both died trying to outrun the police, driving like bats out of you know where round what they used to call Dead Man’s Curve up at Boone’s Mill. The car took the hill too fast and went off into the ravine.
“Willard himself died in a motorcycle accident a few years later. I knew his daughter Mary Louise a little. She was a strange girl, as you might expect.”
Both Nana and Lee moved out of Franklin County after high school. Nana took a job as a typist for Western Union in Roanoke and then as a salesgirl at the Heironimus department store before marrying my grandfather. Lee went to the war and afterwards to law school. He ended up practicing criminal law and would, much later (and rather notoriously) identify the provenance of a jar of illegal moonshine entered as states evidence by its smell during a cross examination.
They’ve both admitted to drinking moonshine in the last decade, although, these days, both of them much prefer a high-end, well-aged single malt to corn.
Nana: “But sometimes people bring it to us as a gift.”
Lee: “And don’t you know,it would just be real impolite to turn down a gift.”