The Roanoke Times
Sunday, May 26, 1996, Cover Story

Moonshine Memories

There was a time when Happy Hollow was home to more than one producer of illegal liquor

By Leslie Hager-Smith, Staff Writer

Blacksburg --- Franklin County got all the press, but there was a time when Montgomery County also had a reputation for producing what one might call "forest products."

Coal Bank Hollow, Toms Creek and Diamond Ridge near Blacksburg and the little village of Cambria made the New River Valley a top producer of illegal liquor for more than three decades.

But Happy Hollow captures the imagination in a way other locales may not. Maybe it's the name, or its titillating proximity to respectability just outside Blacksburg town limits. Or could it be the mysterious way the real hollow veers off the present-day road and into history, deep in the secluded woods?

When Lee Price, 89, was a boy hauling milk for his family and neighbors, the hollow was a dirt "gate road." It meandered along Indian Run, from farm to orchard. A gate at each property kept livestock from wandering off.

Today, the road stretches from Mount Tabor Road to present-day Harding Avenue, spilling into the valley at Lusters Gate. That's where Lee Price once hauled his milk in a horse-drawn wagon to be processed at the cheese factory.

A more ideal location for the production of illegal spirits Happy Hollow and nearby Diamond Ridge. He took care to produce a quality product, his son said. His still was copper, he used wood barrels, and he transported his product in glass, said Elton Davis.

Like other agricultural pursuits, the work was seasonal. The elder Davis made peach and apple brandy, as crops came in. Then, he'd turn to making whisky from corn, straight sugar, or "chop," a feed made of corn and wheat chaff.

Mash for whiskey could be ready for distillation in as little as three to seven days, Elton Davis said. Fruit pumice needed to be fermented 16 to 18 weeks, which made brandy a luxury.

The work came to a close after September, when hunters began to roam the woods.

"When the main huntin' season came in, you had to pack your stuff up and haul freight," Elton Davis said. "When firing a still, you didn't want no smoke. It would be like giving a smoke signal to the entire community. You had to get good, dry wood and you had to fire it before the sun came up."

Elton Davis said he made a still for an uncle, whose own substantial operation was on Paris Mountain.

"The ABC investigators never did find that one. I made the still, set it up for him, built a ramp over the top of it and had a trap door. They were standing on top of it asking him where his still was at. If the trap door had broke, they'd of fell right down in the mash!"

Hauling 'hooch'

Elton Davis began hauling moonshine in 1954, at the age of 17 --- almost as soon as he could drive.

"I used to deliver to the grocery stores, to the restaurants, to the rich people and the poor,... I even dropped some off at the courthouse," he said.

"It was once a year, in October, at the courthouse --- always two cases. I always wondered where it went. One night I had a notion to stay and see who picked it up, but my dad gave me orders not to. When he told you something, he meant for you to do it."

Once there was a special meeting of parishioners from Davis Chapel, which bordered Warren Davis' homeplace. The chapel, named after a distant cousin, still stands on Harding Avenue, about a half mile beyond Happy Hollow. The congregation determined to put the Davis moonshiners out of business.

"That's easy!" one of the deacons said, "Let's quit buying it!" is the way Elton Davis recounts the meeting.

But the locals didn't stop buying and the Davises didn't stop producing. The still itself was moved periodically to avoid detection. The whiskey was buried, hidden in brush piles or concealed behind trap doors in the hollows around Blacksburg --- not always on their own property.

"We had good neighbors," explained Elton Davis. "They didn't drink but they didn't cause us no trouble."

By the time the Davises' enterprise came to an end, their moonshine was being hauled to West Virginia and Maryland, and as far as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The price was 50 cents a pint in the late '30s and $2.50 a pint by the late '60s.

"The ABC investigators used to come. They'd search and they'd break up my mom's canned fruit," Elton said. "One time I bought a new chainsaw from Sears & Roebuck. Come home that evening, and they had took a hammer and beat that up. They'd let the cows out, and they'd cut the mattresses open. They would actually turn cow piles over. You ain't never seen nothin' like what they would do in all your days!"

Jack Powell, the retired ABC investigator, tells a different story. "You hear about officers doing this thing or the other, but we were 90 percent sure of our facts," he said.

Powell has written a book on moonshining in Southwest Virginia. "A Dying Art" is scheduled for publication in July by Prestige Publishing.

"Every time you went there, you had to fight that entire family. They shot at us. We had knockdown-drag-outs, not just at the Davises'. It was a large family, engaged in a major business. They don't mind telling you that they don't appreciate revenue agents taking away their livelihood. A lot of people think there's nothing to it --- it's just a tax law, but it was these people's life."

ABC investigators spent months in surveillance of major violators like the Davises, collecting information for warrants and waiting for a chance to arrest them. One day, in September 1967, that chance arrived.

According to Powell, investigators arrested a man hauling a load of moonshine from the Davis homeplace. A search revealed a small quantity of additional whiskey hidden in a wood pile and tire tracks leaving that site.

Elton Davis maintains that the whiskey was planted by ABC agents, that his father had sold his entire inventory and declared his intentions to quit the business.

Both parties agree, however, on the sad ending. Warren E. Davis died in December of that year while awaiting trial.

"My mama said that was the end of it," Elton Davis said. "There'd never be no more of that."