Hoosier Moonshiner Chester Smith
Indiana towns and communities, particularly those in the southern 1/3 of the state, tend to be tight nit and subsequently tight lipped about the affairs of neighbors when it comes to speaking to “outsiders”. Subsequently, despite my Hoosier roots and background in Washington County (including my “cornbread” accent) I by no means have a “free pass” once I step a foot, even gently, across a county line. In Washington County it’s well known I was a local Moonshiner and am now a demonstrator, historical researcher, and legal distiller, but just one county away, despite my employment and friendships locally, it’s taken some time to get the folks of western Orange county to open up to my research.
It seems funny to note that despite the history of gambling, murder, prostitution, and illicit distilling (No judgement, it’s a deep and fascinating history that deserves study!) I have found it harder to pry information from folks in the Springs Valley area regarding historical illicit distillation than I have experienced elsewhere. I have no doubt that were the roles reversed and a stranger from Orange county came to Washington county to research distillation he would run into the same stonewall at first and I can honestly and truly say I have yet to have had a gun pulled on me in Orange county in response to my research while it has happened once in Washington county (remember kiddies “Rumor mills wreck stills.”).
Occasionally I will hear a “whisper” from someone that usually sounds something akin to “You should speak to such and such, their Daddy made liquor and did some bootlegging”. Although typically my follow up with “such and such” is often stonewalled with a statement something like; “Oh, my dad would have never have been involved with such a thing.” But sometimes I do luck out and the folks I’ve made deep friendships with, including at the local museum, often put me on the right track for finding deep and meaningful information. Perry Noble who was interviewed on this blog sometime back as an example brought some really interesting conversations to light.
Not long ago, one of those good friends, Patty Drabing of the awesome French Lick Museum put me in contact with a local lady by the name of Barbara Coulter near the Tucker Lake spillway. The only info I had on hand was that a local moonshiner had operated in that area and that Barbara would be the one to talk to about this local producer. Unfortunately, I had no phone number so this was going to require a cold call to the house. Again, you never know what your going to find when you get to a place like that.
I was familiar with the local spring and it’s a gorgeous place and I had passed it once before while exploring some back roads and thought to myself what a great place that would have been to make some fine whiskey or brandy if it weren’t located so closely to the road, but the spring itself does feed a couple of “branches” across the way which in earlier times would have been remote enough and private enough to allow for some clandestine production.
Arriving at Barbara’s home I struggled to put into words what I would say once I knocked on the door if someone answered. I’m never sure where to start when I stop by someone’s house on a whim chasing these old distilling stories, I usually stutter and stammer some version of; “Hi, my name is Alan Bishop, I’m a distiller and historical researcher that writes about the history of distillation in Southern Indiana and I was told you might be someone I would want to speak with as you might have some information I would find useful.” Typically, I trip all over it and I would probably be better off to knock on the door and once it is answered simply say “Whiskey” and allow them to draw their own conclusion as invariably I always have to reexplain the cluttered mess of words that falls out of my mouth when I try to sound “official” in some way.
Barbara’s husband answered the door and after my explanation smiled and invited me in and introduced me to Barbara, I explained who I was and what I was looking for and some of the previous research I had done, particularly around Millersburg as Barbara’s husband had grown up in that area. Barbara told me what she knew of the story which revolved around her grandfather Chester Smith, and said she would reach out to her family to find some more information for me and we could make plans to meet up in the near future.
A few weeks later we made plans to meet on a Sunday afternoon at her house and she told me she had a picture of her grandfather Chester Smith that she would be glad to share with me and that she had been in contact with her Uncle Harold Smith who would love to talk to me about what he knew. In short order she made the phone call and the story came out like gold for someone such as me who is detail oriented when it comes to distillation.
Harold, who is now in his 80’s remembered well his father’s moonshine operation and had even at various times helped him in the endeavor. The Smiths had lived across the road from the little spring and Chester himself had been responsible for installing the original piping that made the spring water available to passersby (Yes, for those interested, I did indeed taste and sample the water and it would still make fine spirits to this day.) The old cellar of the house still sets across the road marking the spot where they had lived.
According to Harold his father had entered the moonshine business sometime before his 5 children were born and had developed a pretty comprehensive methodology. Where he learned the methodology remains unknown although it does shadow pretty closely the methods of distillation and fermentation used by the Moonshiners around Dubois county to make “Jasper Corn” or “Dubois County Dew”, and it’s a good guess that he may have learned his trade from someone in that tight nit circle.
Chester had worked for himself as a farmer and also at CRANE Naval Depot in Martin county Indiana as well as a sawmill located near the home. His Moonshine enterprise was always in conjunction with these legitimate jobs and was essentially a way of making a bit of extra money. He began making shine in the 1920’s and as the children were born it was used as a way to supplement his meager income in order to buy the necessities for the family during the winter such as shoes or jackets. Interestingly enough Chester himself was not at all a drinking man but would in time earn a premium for the moonshine he made and a reputation for quality.
As Harold Told me “He had it hard, he would get up for work at 3:00 A.M. and not get in until 6:00 in the evening, I remember him cutting his corn by moonlight. He always had chickens, pigs, or cows, and would sell what he could to make ends meet, including the moonshine.”
All that remains of the old Smith homestead across from the spring that fed the moonshine operation and local sawmill.
Chester, being an ever so clever Moonshiner, stuck by the old trade secret of not doing business on his own property and instead relied on a branch of the spring that crossed an absentee/out of state neighbor’s property (Interestingly this neighbor was from Chicago, if there was a connection there is not known in the family but does seem “convenient”). Regarding equipment he ran a 60 gallon all copper pot still with a funnel shaped top and an old-fashioned serpentine/worm coil. No thump was used and most of the whiskey was once distilled as opposed to “doubled and twisted”. The “tails” and “heads” of the run may have been added back to the next distillation to rectify them.
Harold, who has his father’s recipe and hydrometer, explained that the recipe called for 100 lbs. of sugar and about 3 gallons of corn which would fall in line with a lot of the old prohibition era “sugar head” recipes that were so popular at the time due to their efficiency and quick preparation/finish time. The corn of course really only served as a bit of a flavoring profile for the finished alcohol, although it was grown by Chester and ground at the local French Lick mill where they turned it into a cracked corn.
Harold said of the recipe; “He would dump the sugar in the barrel, get his water good and hot and add that to the sugar to suspend it, then he would add his corn and cold water to fill the barrel up. The last thing he would put in was the yeast because the hot temperatures would kill it. He would use dry ash wood for the fire as it didn’t make much smoke and he could tell by how fast or slow the still was running whether he needed to stoke the fire some more or pull the wood away from the furnace. He would make about 2-3 runs a year and each run would make about 10 gallons. He would make it about 110 proof. He would have been better off if he made it somewhere closer to 80 in my opinion.”
The old spring as it appears today. The water would still make some of the finest Hoosier spirits one could imagine and has easy access from the road.
To this moonshine Chester added his own twist by having a fellow in Jasper build him some 10-15-gallon barrels in which he would age the moonshine for 6 months to a year before he sold it, it is this step which gained him a premium on his product that he sold for $1.00 a half a pint to locals around French Lick, West Baden, and Paoli. Sometimes he would store these barrels in the attic of his home and other times they were stored off of the property, he even re-cooped some of his barrels as Harold remembered him taking the metal bands off the end of a barrel to remove the head before he filled it with straw and set it on fire and put it back together.
“He made his worm by taking 2 or 3-inch soft copper and wrapping it around a tree to get it the right size, then he would cut the tree down and take the copper off. It was my job when I was a boy to pour water on the worm to cool it down and make the vapors condense.” said Harold. “He would feed the spent mash to the chickens and they would get drunk, it had a similar effect with the pigs too. Sometimes he would also buy some moonshine from Dubois and re-sale it locally as well.”
Chester mostly made his whiskey in the warm months of the year as it would allow the mash to ferment off and finish quicker. He made use of his chicken house with a tin roof to keep the temperatures up on the mash as well and even made use of the previously mentioned sawmill by digging his mash barrels into the green sawdust and taking advantage of the thermophilic heat provided therein.
Stopping to pay a little tribute to those who came before me in this adventure.
Chester continued his work in the moonshine vocation until Harold was 7 or 8 years old. At some point in time the local revenue officers caught wind of his illicit operation and set out to bust him by befriending a neighbor (a bulldozer operator) while undercover. The agent had been out and about undercover asking where a person could get a drink and the neighbor had mentioned that he knew somewhere he could go to get a good one. The men came to the house to visit Chester who told them to wait there while he went to fetch the moonshine. Harold recalled watching his father walk up over the hill where he had some shine “dug in” in a cache, at the time he didn’t think anything of how intently the man was watching his father, clearly in retrospect he was trying to see where Chester was retrieving the illicit whiskey. Chester brought the whiskey back and accepted the payment and didn’t think much of it until a few days later when the neighbor became suspicious of the gentleman and and mentioned to Chester that the fellow had said he too was a bulldozer operator but he had never heard his name in familiar circles.
It wasn’t long before the suspicious man showed up again looking to buy some of this premium moonshine. Chester asked him point blank if he was a revenue man to which the fellow replied; “I have been accused of being a lot of things but I have never been accused of that.” Chester asked him what he was doing in the area and he reported that he and a friend were fishing at a pond locally, he pulled a fishing net out of the back of his truck as “proof” of his endeavors. Chester once again sold the man some of the product he had developed such a name for.
Three to four days later several cars came screaming up the driveway to the little house, revenuers looking for the illicit operation obviously. They searched the place top to bottom but they couldn’t find hide nor hair of the still or the moonshine. One of the gentleman told Chester that if he would just show them where everything was they would make sure that they went easy on him at the trial. Being a family man Chester was cornered and thought it best to do what he thought was the right thing and what would make things easier on him and his family, he turned over to him his equipment and illicit alcohol.
“They tore up everything he had” said Harold. “At the time he was running a double wall condenser and they got that too.”
When the case went to trial the original prosecutor, who was aware of the deal that had been cut was out sick and a new prosecutor hell bent on “punishing” the moonshiner had been appointed. Chester’s wife and five children were present in the courtroom and it looked as though they were going to throw the book at him. Fortunately, the judge was informed of the deal that had originally been cut and showed leniency on Chester as he had a family to take care of. The judge handed down a suspended sentence that consisted of 90 days on what Chester would later call “the peanut farm” as well as a $30 fine and a promise not to make whiskey ever again.
Harold said Chester only made one or two more batches in the years after that but that he was scared to death and shaking all the time, afraid of course that the revenue men would catch him in the act once more and “throw the book” at him.
Here is a short video clip of the Chester Smith spring which also shows the remains of the old basement and a couple of the “branches” of the spring upon which Chester ran his illicit still.