Excerpt from Randy McNutt's Ghosts: Ohio's Haunted Landscapes, Lost Arts, and Forgotten Places.
THE BOOTLEG CAPITAL OF OHIO
Southern Perry County--once the center of moonshining country--is mostly woods on top of the earth and mines beneath it, like a giant ant colony. You don't realize their presence from a distance because in summer the hills turn green and lush. They cover up man's messes. Coal is obtained from two places--on the surface or beneath it. The surface work, called strip-mining, has lost favor in recent years. Traditionally, the coal has been dug out by horses and tractors, or, in modern times, by big scrapers. As I drove around, happily lost in the hills, I saw gigantic stretches of torn earth between the fields, as though some intergalactic space scooper had plowed through the area one night. By contrast, a few hundred feet away stood forests so dense that I could see no light from inside.
I arrived in New Straitsville just in time to experience the Moonshine Festival, one of those celebrations designed to attract customers and promote the community. On an empty lot near the business district, an older man named Jim Thompson demonstrated a still. The black contraption wheezed and moaned, and Thompson wiped his wrinkled forehead and adjusted a couple of metal pipes. He said, "When my daughter was born, the doctor asked me, 'Jim, what'll I put on this birth certificate?' I told him 'bootlegger' was good enough for me."
New Straitsville was a coal-mining town until the coal business declined and the mines closed in the 1920s. In 1884, the unions and company clashed and a strike stopped work in the mines. A group of radical union members, angry over low wages and the long strike, put timbers in bank cars, soaked them in oil, set them afire, and rolled them into the Plumber Hill Mine. When the fire was discovered days later, it was uncontrollable. One historian has written that the fires covered 241 acres under three counties, and seriously damaged the Hocking Valley's coal industry for years.
The fires have continued to burn ever since and New Straitsville has become known as the town where you can fry an egg over a crack in the ground. Some people have brewed instant coffee in the hot water from the wells and heated school lunches in steam rising from cracks in the highways. Years ago, the state highway department moved State Route 216 after the fire burned through it. Nearby, people used to take pictures of steaming water they drew from a well. Burning mines have acquired fanciful names: Hell's Oven, Devil's Garden, Old Faithful. Fifty million dollars worth of coal lost, by 1880s estimates.
Matthews Café is the most well-known establishment in town. Until 1933, it served moonshine at the bar. The bartender always asked, "Do you want imported or Straitsville Special?" Most of the other small towns in the area brewed their own, too, but New Straitsville's reputation as the bootlegging capital of Ohio was unsurpassed. Thompson said the miners turned to making liquor in the little towns of Perry County. He said the moonshiners never filled their barrels to the top because they were afraid that rats would fall in. "Rats loved moonshine," he said. "They liked to sit on barrel rims and dip their paws into the stuff. If it'd leak onto the floor, the rats'd come out and start lickin' the mash. At first, they was scared of us, and they'd run off. The next time we came back, they'd just sit there, lickin'. We could pick 'em up and that didn't even bother 'em. They didn't even know where they was."
State liquor agents raided the hills every few months, but the moonshiners usually heard of their activity and hid the brew. Thompson was much more concerned about the federals.
"Henry Spencer got caught deliverin' whiskey down in Nelsonville, and he made a deal with a fed named Bush," Thompson said. "If Bush would let him go, Spencer promised to show where to find four other guys who were brewin' liquor. Spencer, that dirty son-of-a-gun, was workin' with us. Well, late one night we saw a car comin' but we figured it was Spencer comin' down to check on his mash. We didn't pay much attention. Come six o'clock the next mornin', the feds come to my door. We had hid our kegs under the chicken coop, see, and they found 'em and poured 'em out-three ten-gallon kegs of it. They kept the fourth one. Old Henry Spencer sure was somethin'--told on his own brother and brother-in-law and lost a barrel of his own mash just to save his skin."
Photographs of Randy McNutt by Dick Swaim.
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