15 Apr Popcorn Sutton: Whiskey Rebel by John Meyers
“Jesus turned water into wine, I turned it into damn likker”
– Popcorn Sutton
Appalachia’s history is largely comprised of tales of resistance of one form or another. The poster child of Appalachia’s rebellion against unjust authority has always been the Moonshiner, the maker of non-government approved distilled spirits. These spirits were commonly referred to in the southern lexicon as moonshine, mountain dew, white lightning, “painter piss,” or perhaps more simply “likker.” There is no moonshiner more infamous than the Smoky Mountain’s own, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. He was not only one of the most famous makers of illicit liquor, but he also led his entire life in defiance of government authority and was quite a character to boot.
Sutton was born in Haywood County, North Carolina, a rural mountainous county on the Tennessee border. At an early age he learned whiskey making from his family and local whiskey makers a like in Haywood and neighboring Cocke County, Tennessee. In due time, he became a well-known whiskey maker in the region. Taking full advantage of the legal jurisdictional confusion between the two states, he plied his trade to the fullest. This was a very common practice employed by bootleggers and moonshiners in years past, when one sheriff would get on your trail you hopped across the state or county line and continued your business.
The tradition of whiskey making as employed by mountain folk originates further back than many people realize. It comes from the Poitín tradition popular in the peat bogs and mountain regions of Scotland and Ireland where most of the ancestors of the southern mountain people originated. While the mountain region of the Southern states lacked wheat, rye or barley for malt historically, residents of the region adapted using Indian corn and malted corn for the fermenting agent. Whiskey making is considered as sacred a right as bearing military style and cosmetically offensive “assault weapons” or keeping livestock. Moonshining in the southern mountains is not only justified on the grounds of natural rights, but also on even simpler grounds. Many makers of illicit whiskey, when asked why they do it have the simple answer of “… my daddy made whiskey, and his daddy made whiskey, and his daddy before him made whiskey, so I’m just gonna keep makin’ it to.”
Popcorn was a dyed in the wool capitalist and largely libertarian in his dealings and belief system. What set him apart from the rest was his unique marketing strategy. He boasts in his book “Me and My Likker,” that him and his father were not political beings, but instead sold moonshine to folks at the polling place on Election Day. This is a much more effective use of time than trying to vote yourself free. He was fiercely independent even to the extent of purchasing his own casket, flowers and the shovels needed to bury him before he died. He is on record of stating that even though he was extremely sick late in life and had amassed a pile of medical bills, “the government nor the county doesn’t pay my bills, I do.”
Popcorn’s first run in with the law was in 1974. He was arrested and later convicted on illegal production of untaxed whiskey, among other charges. In typical mountain fashion, the day after he was released on bond after his arrest, he went right back to the same spot where he was arrested and set his still back up. He figured that was the safest place to be back in business. When speaking of his arrests he was fond of saying “I didn’t steal anything here… I paid for the copper, the sugar, the corn…so I don’t see where I broke the law anywhere.”
Over the years he built up quite a reputation. From selling jars of likker directly out of his junk shop in Maggie Valley, NC to even being close friends with a Federal Judge. He had a unique marketing strategy of writing books about himself and even appearing in documentary films. Many stores in Maggie Valley, North Carolina carried his books and movies and for 50$ each they could be yours. Many still do to this day, years after his death. When confronted about why it might be a bad idea to appear in a movie that depicts him breaking the law, his response was, “You cant sell it if nobody knows you got it.” He would charge $3 to have your picture made “with a real mountain moonshiner” at his store.
Popcorn set up whiskey making demonstrations at a number of public events and fairs throughout the area over the years. At one event at the Museum of Appalachia, he was running real whiskey out of his still and people were complaining to the owner that he was getting everyone drunk. When he was told to stop, he packed up and left. When he talked about quality of his product, he displayed a wonderful and basic free market sense. He stated that he didn’t sell any bad whiskey and he made the best because ‘no one would come back for more’ if it wasn’t the best. He was in it for repeat business, not a ‘one time show.’
Soon Sutton’s business took a turn for the worse. In 2007 he found his still house on fire on his property in East Tennessee. The responding Fire department and Sheriff’s office quickly discovered his moonshine operation. Three 600 gallon stills were discovered and gallons of mash and whiskey. He urged them not to report him, however these state actors being the good little goons that they are, soon had ABC agents and ATF on the scene where he was charged with possession and manufacturing of illegal and untaxed distilled spirits and felony possession of firearms. Like many mountain men, Popcorn was commonly known to always carry a pistol in his pocket, no CCW permit or state permission needed. Another Haywood County, NC resident, 5-Time Banjo Champion Raymond Fairchild carried what he refers to as “the law” in his pocket, a small revolver. This was during a time when the concept of a CCW permit didn’t even exist.
Popcorn was sentenced to probation. He didn’t quit making whiskey. He went bigger than before. He set up a few 1000 gal. stainless steel stills. He soon found himself the victim of under cover buying operations by federal and state alcohol enforcement agents. He was charged again with possession, manufacturing and selling of illegal and untaxed whiskey. They reportedly found 1700 gallons of whiskey in his possession. He was convicted soon after in federal court.
On an ironic note that is pertinent to us in the Liberty movement, the head of this ATF operation was none other than the Butcher of Waco, James Cavanaugh. This man had the audacity to claim he was ridding society of vermin by arresting Popcorn Sutton and that “the truth though, is that moonshine is a dangerous health issue and breeds other crime.” This man has the audacity to say such a thing after he is personally responsible for being behind an operation in 1993 that killed and burned 80 innocent men, women and children at a church in Waco, Texas. It seems James Cavanaugh is still on the job keeping America “safe.” (Lord, help us)
While on house arrest waiting his sentencing to be handed down, Popcorn Sutton remained ever defiant. When the letter came for him to report to federal prison to serve 18 months for his ‘crimes,’ he channeled Patrick Henry. Sutton died for his beliefs. Instead of reporting to serve this unjust sentence to the federal gulag, he committed suicide by gassing himself to death in one of his automobiles, known as the “3 Jug Ford” (He paid 3 jugs of whiskey for the car). When news of Sutton’s death in 2009 was reported, an entire region mourned.
Appalachia celebrates The Resistance. Mountain culture nullifies bad laws. Most of history is a celebration of the law-breakers. Do we celebrate the Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 or the Nazi Troops “just doing their jobs?” Stories abound to this day of Popcorn’s death. Some residents of Haywood and Cocke counties believe he faked his own death and is still alive. A Judge spoke at his public memorial service, praising this notorious outlaw. Hank Williams Jr., the country music legend, also appeared. It is nearly unanimous among folks in the region that the arrest of Popcorn for these non-crimes was not only unjust but also despicable. They cite nothing but the Non-Aggression principle in his defense.
While Popcorn had a troubled personal life and can be accurately described as a ‘dead beat father’ his estranged daughter, Sky Sutton, commented that Popcorn went out in a ‘blaze of glory’ and ‘on his own terms…flipping his middle finger as he went.’
The Appalachian region displays a unique example of resistance to arbitrary authority. It was not until the mid 20th century until the various governments had much affect on the region. For much of its history, the region was largely operated on a stateless model. Disputes to this day are often settled without interference of state sanctioned law enforcement. Federal revenue agents tasked with capturing moonshiners and busting up distilling operations in years past often never returned home after entering the mountains.
Due to geographical isolation and terrain, governments have historically had very little effective rule in mountainous areas. We need only mention the Pashtun’s of Afghanistan or the mountain peoples of Southeast Asia to illustrate this point. Nearly every community in the southern mountains from Georgia to Maryland has a story or three of how these men resisted authority they never consented to. During the Whiskey Rebellion in the late 18th century, it is reported that at least one tax collector’s nose was ground off on a grinding wheel in western North Carolina. The voluntary clan-like structure and kinship among mountain people created a sort of guerrilla underground. News of ATF and ALE/ABC agent activity was trafficked amongst this network. Mountain men are by nature suspicious of the outsiders or ‘outlanders’ due to being exploited by government and carpet baggers for generations. Informants are still considered the scum of the earth in these parts, as are ATF and alcohol enforcement agents. Historically, the ‘revenuers,’ a branch of the US treasury department, when they made their first big push into the mountains in the later 19th and 20th centuries, were largely comprised of agents recruited from prison and the criminal elements of society. Much like how most cops are now recruited from Middle-east war veterans.
The culture was so entrenched in nullification of so many of these tyrannical laws that it often allowed the laws to be broken out in the open, as Popcorn Sutton is a vivid example of. Much like Ireland’s guerrilla mastermind, Michael Collins when he appeared at a funeral with a very large bounty on his head, with support of the population, you can be successful. “Illegal Likker” and marijuana grow plots are still found in quantity nearly anywhere in the southern Appalachian region to this day. A jar of likker can be found at any college party or bartered amongst neighbors. At one point, being in mere possession of a piece of a whiskey still was a “crime” punishable with prison time. Many people did not take lightly the idea of their family, friends and neighbors being sent to jail for possession of inanimate objects. Later in life, Popcorn Sutton drove around a restored Model T Ford with a retired copper whiskey still in the bed of the truck proudly on display.
Cocke County, Tennessee, where Sutton spent a large part of his time was once considered the “Moonshine Capital of the World.” Locals bragged that at one point you could buy whiskey every 100 yards on Cosby Creek. Brothels and Cock fighting rings were also common.
Appalachia remains a fiercely independent region to this day. An underlying theme in most stories relating to the region is that for every injustice, the government is generally behind it. Folks are taught to celebrate the outlaws and those that resist oppression. Someone who opposes the State is very likely to gain popular support in the hills. In one of his last and best acts of defiance, Sutton created a lasting legacy. He is featured in documentary films such as “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make” or “The Last Run” demonstrating his craft from beginning to end, ultimately teaching entire generations of people across the world how to make whiskey and defy government encroachment of their natural rights. Even in his death he is inspiring more folks to take up the cause. Popcorn defied authority until the end. His foot marker is shown below.