Zack Harold

writer/editor

Moonshiner’s Got Nothing to Hide

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on August 27, 2014. 

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers.

He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however.

First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.

And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.

His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.

Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.

At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.

He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.

“I said, There’s got to be something wrong.’

He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.

Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.

“I said I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. He took the plunge.

Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.

He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.

Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.

Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.

The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.

The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.

Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.

Then he ran the still for the first time.

“It was better, Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”

Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.

The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.

This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.

The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.

Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.

Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.

The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head and into a copper line.

The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.

Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.

Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.

The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.

This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.

The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.

“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.

Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.

The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.

Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.

Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”

They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.

These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.

Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.

“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.

Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.

Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

Freeman also is planning additional flavors – including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint – and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.

For more information about Appalachian Distillery, visit www.appalachian-moonshine.com or search “Appalachian Distillery” on Facebook.

The making of Robert C. Byrd’s “Mountain Fiddler”

This story originally appeared in the July 6, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

In all of the obituaries written about the late Sen. Robert Byrd over the last week, there’s one detail nearly everyone made sure to include alongside his political victories and infamous missteps—his love of traditional mountain music.

A longtime fiddler himself, Byrd held onto his love of old-time tunes when he left the hills of West Virginia for Washington, D.C.

Among his countless, historic accomplishments, the nation’s longest-serving senator is also the only person to have recorded a musical album on Capitol Hill.

His record, “Mountain Fiddler,” was released on County Records in 1978. The project began two years earlier, when Alan Jabbour from the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center contacted Barry Poss, a producer with the record company.

“They had been talking with Sen. Byrd about doing some recording, but it really wasn’t part of the Library of Congress’s mission to get involved. They weren’t really set up for this kind of venture because it was a public recording,” Poss said.

So Jabbour asked if Poss was interested in the project. He was, and made a trip to D.C. to meet with Byrd.

“It was a little bit different. My normal routine was to meet artists at a club or backstage at a festival at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Poss said.

Instead, Poss met the senator in his Capitol Hill office, where Byrd played him some rough demo tapes he had already prepared. The men met several more times to work through Byrd’s extensive repertoire and come up with songs for the record.

Poss said the goal was to cover a broad range of music, from old folk songs and dance to gospel tunes.

“The kinds of music that, growing up in rural West Virginia or even anywhere in the southern Appalachians, you would have heard,” Poss said.

The men eventually chose 14 songs, including “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Cripple Creek,” “Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” and “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die.”

Surrounding Byrd

The producer then was charged with booking a recording studio and finding musicians to back the Senate majority leader. And he knew exactly who to call first—Doyle Lawson.

Poss had just produced Doyle Lawson’s first solo album, “Tennessee Dream,” also released on County Records.

Lawson, a multi-instrumentalist who first appeared on the national bluegrass scene in the early ’60s as Jimmy Martin’s banjo player, was at the time playing mandolin in the Washington D.C.-based group the Country Gentlemen.

“He was just the right person, because Doyle is a born leader,” Poss said of Lawson. “He has this incredible ability to bring others around him to inspire him and bring them along to where there’s really good studio-quality material.”

Although he was an accomplished musician, Byrd performed solo for most of his musical life. He often would crack open his fiddle case to play some tunes at fundraisers, rallies and campaign stops but was unaccustomed to playing with other pickers.

Without a strong, talented rhythm section behind the senator, Poss worried the songs might fall apart.

“People who (perform by themselves) have a different sense of rhythm. They can be a little freer with the rhythm,” he said. “I had to make sure the caliber of the musicians was high enough to bring Sen. Byrd along.”

Lawson accepted Poss’ offer and recruited Country Gentlemen band mate James Bailey to play banjo on the record. Lawson then picked Spider Gilliam, the Gentlemen’s road manager and sometime bass player, to hold down the low end.

Recording site

Poss said his original plan was to have Byrd record in a professional studio. He took the senator to Bias Studios in northwest Virginia for a pre-recording visit but could tell something was wrong.

“He looked a bit uncomfortable to me, and of course you wouldn’t want someone to be uncomfortable in a recording,” he said.

Poss said he thinks the jungle of microphones, mixing boards and isolation booths intimidated Byrd.

“It was a little bit of an alien environment,” he said.

With a professional studio out of the question, Poss now had to find a place where Byrd would be more comfortable, a place where he spent a lot of time.

For Byrd, an infamous workaholic, that place was his Senate office. So that’s where Poss decided to hold the recording sessions.

He tapped Bias recording engineer Bill McElroy to make it happen.

“I asked him to build a portable console that would be stripped down and unobtrusive. I guess the idea was to have the recording process be as natural as possible,” Poss said.

McElroy built a two-track recording unit and set it up in Byrd’s conference room.

Completely live

With only two tracks to record on – one for the left stereo channel and another for the right – the band recorded the album completely live. They couldn’t go back and overdub any flubbed parts. If someone messed up, everyone had to redo the song.

“What went on there, that’s what you had,” Gilliam, the bass player, said. “It put the pressure on.”

Poss said, “They basically stood in a circle, performing live, just as though they were playing in his living room.”

Lawson said, “We didn’t practice or anything until we got to the Capitol building.”

Lawson said Byrd had some trouble getting started so he suggested the senator warm up with a “Georgia shuffle,” where fiddlers run their bow over the strings in rhythm for a song intro.

He said the recording went smoothly after that, except for some false starts and a few other typical studio mishaps.

“If he got in a big way of fiddling, his bow might hit the microphone,” Lawson said.

Multiple rehearsals

The senator soon grew accustomed to his new band, and the music fell into place.

“He was really open and very observant and picked it up immediately,” Lawson said. “To be honest, I was really surprised at how well he played old-time fiddle. He had drive, authority and passion.”

He said Byrd’s singing wasn’t anything to be ashamed of either.

“He would sing with the same gusto that he played with. It was a lot of fun,” Lawson said.

Banjo picker Bailey said he also was impressed by Byrd’s knowledge of old-time music.

He said Byrd knew lyrics to songs that most musicians only know as instrumental numbers, like “Cumberland Gap.” And if the senator knew the words, he would sing them all.

“If a song had 15 verses, that’s what he did,” Bailey said. “He looked at a song as a work and that’s what he would do. He would cover the whole thing.

“His heart and soul were in old-time numbers,” he said.

Poss remembers recording the album was “amazingly fun” and said Byrd’s enthusiasm for his music infected everyone involved.

“He wore everybody out,” Poss said.

“Musicians typically tend to like to warm up a little bit to limber up, but not too much because they don’t want to lose that edge. Sen. Byrd was different. The more he rehearsed, the more he wanted to rehearse.”

Byrd on tour

After the record was finished and released, Byrd and his band went on a short promotional tour.

One of the first stops was at Discount Records and Books, a record store in Washington, D.C. Byrd gave an in-store performance and signed records for fans.

“I remember showing up. It was a scene like I’d never seen,” Poss said. “The store was mobbed, the street was just jammed with cars and people lined up around the block.”

The tour also included stops on the hit variety show “Hee Haw” and the “Grand Ole Opry.” Byrd’s appearance marked the Opry’s second-ever national broadcast, shown then on PBS.

Poss, Gilliam and Bailey accompanied Byrd on his trip to Nashville.

“It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Poss said.

Byrd listened to AM broadcasts of the Opry as a child, and sawing his fiddle on its hallowed stage was a lifelong dream.

But when his moment in the spotlight came, Poss said the senator was quite nervous. “That quickly went away because of what goes on backstage at the Opry,” Poss said.

Byrd and his band hung out in Opry legend Roy Acuff’s dressing room that night. As country music stars like Minnie Pearl and fellow West Virginian Little Jimmie Dickens stopped by to chat, his nerves started to calm.

“They welcomed him, not as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, but as a fellow artist. They really made him feel right at home,” Poss said.

“I almost had the feeling he was ready to go on the road.”

Gilliam remembers stopping at a restaurant after their Opry performance. It was about 3 a.m.

“He asked me, ‘How old are you, Spider?’ “Gilliam said. The bass player was 38 at the time. Byrd was in his late 50s.

“He told me, ‘If I was your age, I’d give up my seat in the Senate and do this for a living,'” Gilliam remembered. “I thought, ‘Yes, sir. And you would flat starve to death.'”

Mission complete

While Byrd stuck to his day job, he continued to wow D.C. crowds with his playing.

Gilliam said the senator often invited him and Bailey to Capitol Hill get-togethers, and even to the National Democratic Convention a time or two. Lawson often couldn’t make the performances, since he was on the road with the Gentlemen and later his band Quicksilver.

Gilliam said he saw Byrd play so long and so hard that he wore the hide off his fingers.

But even that wouldn’t stop the senator from sawing the strings.

“He’d bandage those things up and keep on going. One of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen. He’d work all day and beat on that fiddle all night if he could,” Gilliam said.

But Poss said there was never talk of doing another album.

“I think he understood that this was something he needed to do and this wasn’t his career,” he said. “I think that was kind of a mission accomplished.”

Still the record producer, who went on to found Sugar Hill Records and sign artists like Nickel Creek, Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs, said he’s proud of his work with Byrd.

Recently, he and Jabbour wrote a new set of liner notes for “Mountain Fiddler’s” first CD release.

“It’s great,” he said. “I was delighted to hear how well it stood up, and I think that was his goal. The music had already stood the test, and I think his recordings will stand the test of time.”

Poss said, “He had put as much work into this as he did anything else in his life.”

“Mountain Fiddler” is now available for sale at www.countysales.com. The album will appear in music stores and online in a couple of weeks.

They Keep Old Trains A-Rolling

This story originally appeared in the June 4, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

CASS — When something breaks on a train at Cass Scenic Railroad, whether it’s as small as a bracket or as big as a boiler, the men and women in the park’s locomotive shops fix it.

They have to. Chances are, you can’t buy a replacement part.

Forget about instruction manuals, too. Although the state park serves as a living museum of the United States’ steam-powered history, there aren’t many reference books lying around.

“You pretty well go by what’s already there. You make it as it was,” said Danny Hoover, engineer for the Cass No. 5 locomotive.

Hoover, 52, has worked at Cass for 15 years.

He said he always has been fascinated by the trains—he remembers when engineers from Cass used to drive their locomotives to the Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon—but had no real knowledge about the machines when he started working in the shop.

Like all of the railroad’s employees, Hoover learned on the job.

“These old men passed it down to us,” said longtime engineer Danny Seldomridge. “What we learned from them is better than books.”

Seldomridge, 56, has worked at Cass for 37 years, but has been around the trains for much longer. His dad worked on the park’s track crew and in the railroad shop.

He originally wanted to work with airplanes after high school but married a local girl and started working with his dad.

“They started letting me mess around with these things, and that was it,” he said. “I’m train crazy.”

Seldomridge said he enjoys the challenge of working on antique machines.

“I just like fooling with them. I like taking something, building it back to where it’s better than new,” he said. “Every day you learn a little bit more. I’ve never stopped learning.”

Although most of Cass Scenic Railroad’s 96 staff members are seasonal, the dozen full-time employees in the locomotive shop work year-round. During tourist season, which runs from Memorial Day to the end of October, they work six or seven days a week.

There’s always something to do.

In addition to their duties in the repair shop, they also ride the trains as engineers and firemen (the lucky souls who shovel coal into a locomotive’s white-hot fireboxes). When their trains aren’t running, they work in the shop.

Once a month, crews take the firebox out of each train, let the engine cool down and wash the sediment out of the boiler. The job takes a week “at the fastest,”Hoover said.

“That’s if you’ve got several guys to help you,” he said.

Then, after a locomotive reaches 1,492 hours of service, railroad mechanics have to break down the train’s boiler and replace its flues, the pipes that run through the water-filled boiler carrying hot gases from burning coal.

If, for some reason, crews can’t repair a part, they hire a pattern maker to fabricate a copy of the original. The shop is rarely able to provide blueprints, so they send either the old, broken part or exact measurements.

Crews don’t get to do many heavy-duty repairs until the off-season, however.
Most shop workers take their vacations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, because the real work begins in January. That’s when the major repairs take place, when all the trains get broken down and put back together. Axles are replaced, boilers are overhauled and coal bunkers are rebuilt.

“I came here in the first of February and everything was torn apart,” park superintendent Rod Sovine said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to make it!'”

They made it. Cass Scenic Railroad has four trains up and running this season.

Seldomridge’s engine, the Western Maryland No. 6, is the newest train in the rail yard. Built in 1945, it’s the last Shay locomotive ever made. It worked for four years in Elkins before retiring to live in the B&O Railroad museum in Baltimore. Cass obtained the train in the early ’80s.

The Cass No. 5, Hoover’s pet engine, is the oldest train on the lot.
A Shay locomotive built in 1905, it;s the only train that worked at Cass when it was still owned by West Virginia Pulp and Paper. Cass No. 4 was built in 1922 but arrived in Cass in 1943, when the Mower Lumber Company owned the property.

The Cass No. 11 came from San Diego, where it started working in 1923. It is the railroad’s newest acquisition and has been in West Virginia for 12 years.

“It didn’t look like that when we got it,” Hoover said.

He said the shiny-black Shay arrived in West Virginia as a bucket of rust. Shop employees gave it a major overhaul.

Two trains are still down for repairs.

Workers are replacing the coal bunker on Cass No. 6, a Heisler locomotive born in 1928. The train worked in Rainelle for the Meadow River Lumber Co. before the state purchased it in 1967 and brought the train to Cass.

Cass No. 2 is getting a major overhaul. Built in 1928 by the Shay Locomotive Co., it originally rode the rails in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It’s now in pieces at the Cass Railroad shop. It doesn’t look much like a train. The firebox and coal bunker still sit on the axles, but workers have removed the engine’s boiler for repairs.

Boilers in steam-powered engines are constantly expanding and contracting, which eventually weakens the metal. Crews are working to replace those weakened sections in the No. 2 boiler. When they’re finished, workers will use an ultrasound machine to determine the thickness of the steel.

Once that’s completed, workers plan to take the axles from under the locomotive and reshape the wheels on the shop’s massive lathe.

There’s no guidebook to read, no website to consult and no schematic to reference. The older guys like Seldomridge and Hoover teach the younger workers. That way, when Seldomridge and Hoover retire, the trains will keep running. Some young fireman will take their place in the engineer’s seat.

That’s what Andrew Cassell, 27, plans to do.
He’s currently the fireman on the Western Maryland No. 6. When Seldomridge pulls levers to move the train forward and back, Cassell stomps on a pedal to opens the train’s firebox. He heaves shovel after shovel of coal into the opening, working almost the whole time the train is in operation.

Remember the Bible story about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the great fiery furnace? That’s what Cassell stares into all day long.

He doesn’t make much money for the backbreaking work. Hoover said firemen make minimum wage. Cassell hopes to become an engineer, however. He’s worked at Cass since 2003.

“They handed me my diploma on Saturday, and I went to work on Monday morning,” Cassell said. “Once you get started. . .”

“You don’t ever leave,” Seldomridge said.

The Quest Gets Tougher

This story originally appeared in the May 4, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Becoming a knight or lady of the Golden Horseshoe has never been a small feat, but winning the state history award now requires an even deeper understanding of West Virginia’s past.

Every West Virginia student takes the Golden Horseshoe test during his or her eighth-grade year. The top finishers from each county are invited to Charleston to be “knighted” by the state superintendent and receive a Golden Horseshoe pin.

For years, the test was made up of trivia questions like “What year did Morgan Morgan establish the first settlement in modern day West Virginia?” The correct answer is 1731, but Mary Johnson, a historian at the state Archives, said questions like that don’t do much to further students’ knowledge of history.

Historians don’t just memorize facts: they analyze original documents, oral histories and other primary sources to understand history. The Golden Horseshoe now reflects that.

“The test doesn’t deal directly with just trivia. It’s important that our students use critical thinking skills,” said Joey Wiseman, social studies coordinator for the state Department of Education.

The education department keeps a database of about 500 Golden Horseshoe test questions and uses it to come up with five different tests for students around the state.

Each year the department releases 30 questions from its archives as a practice test for students. Staff at the West Virginia State Archives replaces those questions with 30 brand-new ones.

Over the last few years, the education department has asked Culture and History staff to come up with more map- and data-based questions.

Students also have to read passages from speeches or documents important to West Virginia’s history—maybe a stump speech during John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 campaign, or a snippet from John Brown’s diaries—and answer questions about the passage.

“What they’re looking for is having students read primary source materials and understand that. They’re coming a little closer as a researcher, understanding material at a deeper level than just the bare facts,” Johnson said.

“It’s a very important skill to develop, whether you’re taking an English course or a history course,” said Joe Geiger, director of the state archives.
Wiseman said it’s still important to know the facts. The test covers a wide swath of West Virginia’s history, from before white settlers arrived in North America to current events.

If students don’t know the context behind some famous document or speech, it’s still difficult for them to answer the questions correctly.

The top finishers in each county visited Charleston on Thursday to be knighted by state Superintendent Jorea Marple and receive their Golden Horseshoe pins.

“I thought it was a joke when they told me they were going to knight my kid,” Meena Bunn said.

She and her son, Francis, moved to West Virginia from New York three years ago. Bunn said she quickly found out how important the Golden Horseshoe is to state residents.

“A lot of West Virginians I told about it got really excited.”

Marlene Simmons’ son, Chase, was really excited when he learned he would get knighted at Thursday’s ceremony.

“He said, ‘Our teacher told us it is one of the most prestigious awards you can get,'” Simmons said.

Marple, her husband, Attorney General Darrell McGraw; Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; Secretary of State Natalie Tennant; and state Board of Education member Priscilla Haden all attended the ceremony to congratulate this year’s 222 winners.

“This will be one of the most memorable days of your young life,” Marple told the students.

She said McGraw and their son, Darrell McGraw III, are both knights of the Golden Horseshoe and still talk about the experience.

“It’s a symbol of academic excellence, and it’s a symbol of your knowledge and understanding of this great state,” she said.

The governor also spoke to students before the knighting ceremony began. He told them about the history of the Golden Horseshoe award, how it was inspired by Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood’s 1716 expedition into what is now West Virginia.

Each of the 50 members of that expedition were given small, golden horseshoes upon their return. West Virginia began giving awards in their honor in 1931.

“You should take note of Gov. Spotswood’s courage. Never stop learning, and never stop exploring,” Tomblin told students. “You are the future of our great state, and I can’t wait to see what each of you become.”

W.Va. Knights, Ladies Honored: Rumors Surround Golden Horseshoe Artifact

This story originally appeared in the May 7, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

This morning, State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine will dub more than 200 West Virginia eighth-graders “knights and ladies of the Golden Horseshoe” for their knowledge of state history.

But there’s one question none of these adolescent history aces, or anybody else for that matter, can answer: Where did the silver sword, used for decades to knight students, come from?

There’s only one thing officials know for certain about this antique weapon.

“The sword is really old, I can tell you that,” said Regina Scotchie, the state Department of Education’s social studies coordinator.

“All the history that we have on where the sword came from is hearsay,” she said.

Scotchie said she heard a men’s club donated the piece years ago and that the current sword is the second in the Golden Horseshoe’s history, but has no proof that would substantiate either rumor.

The sword’s ornate scabbard features several images of the Crusades and an engraving that reads, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” There’s also a large, fanciful engraving that says “Howard S. Chenoweth” in an Old English font.

The pommel on the end of the sword is shaped like a knight’s helmet. The weapon’s cross-guard, which separates the blade from the grip, displays a sword and crown emblem.

The sword’s ivory grip features an “HC” engraving on one side – presumably for “Howard Chenoweth” – and a cross passing through a triangle on the other side.

The blade is stamped with a logo, “The M.C. Lilley & Company, Columbus, Ohio.” It also features several more Crusader scenes and an engraving that reads “memento mori” -“remember that you must die” in Latin – with a skull and crossbones.

Ron Ruble, owner of an online antique weapon shop (www.ruble-enterprises.com), said those markings indicate the sword once belonged to a Mason.

He said a sword was a standard-issued weapon until after the Civil War. Even a company’s musicians carried swords.

But following the war, Ruble said government officials realized a soldier’s sword was a “worthless piece of crap,” seldom used and extremely outdated in an age of long-range weapons like cannons and guns.

So the military stopped ordering as many swords for soldiers and started using the pieces for ceremonial purposes only. Ruble said the drop in sales put sword companies in difficult financial straits, forcing them to adapt their business strategies.

Because most men alive at the time were either Civil War, Mexican-American War or Indian War veterans, members of fraternal organizations like the Masons, the Grand Army of the Republic and the Independent Order of Oddfellows started wearing ornamental swords to the groups’ ceremonies.

“Since they were so used to carrying swords in the military, it was a natural thing,” Ruble said.

Sword manufacturers realized this business opportunity and started making personalized weapons for members. Ruble said this tradition lasted up until the 1920s and 1930s, when a new group of members came along that weren’t so “sword-oriented.”

“They made literally thousands of different ones,” he said. “They’re all over the place if you really start looking around.”

Ruble said West Virginia’s Golden Horseshoe sword is a replica of an 1840 model militia blade and Howard Chenoweth was probably the weapon’s original owner.

He said the manufacturer’s logo indicates the blade was manufactured between 1882 and 1925, making it 85- to 128-years-old.

Scotchie said the weapon’s age might negate the rumor of an earlier Golden Horseshoe sword, but questions remain.

Who, for instance, is Howard S. Chenoweth?

Joe Geiger, director of the state archives, provided the Daily Mail with a death certificate for a Howard Scott Chenoweth, an Elkins native who died in Huntington in December 1943 from a diabetic coma.

A 1944 obituary from the Elkins Inter-Mountain newspaper reveals that Chenoweth, 60 when he died, was a member and former master of Elkins’ Masonic lodge. According to Ruble’s timeline, it’s likely this Chenoweth would have owned a ceremonial sword.

It’s still unclear, however, how the sword made it to the state superintendent’s office.

Social Security death records indicate that Chenoweth’s wife, Helen, and children, Robert Neil and Mary Virginia, are all deceased, and further research didn’t turn up any additional heirs.

Chenoweth has no apparent connections to the state Department of Education, and members of Elkins Lodge 108 say they don’t know anything about the sword or Chenoweth.

The case of the Golden Horseshoe sword may have grown cold, but no matter its origins, it’s still part of a memory thousands of “knights” and “ladies” share, and it’s an artifact of the West Virginia history it represents.

As another group of amateur historians prepared today to have their shoulders tapped by its silver blade, Scotchie said she would like them to remember one thing: Don’t get nervous.

“I always say ‘Guys, we could not cut soft butter with this sword,'” she said.

“He hasn’t cut an ear off yet.”

Protectors of the Forest

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, May 3, 2012. 

LANSING — Zeus has been growing in Mill Creek canyon for four centuries.
The massive hemlock tree stood watch as white explorers moved in, replacing the land’s native inhabitants.

Zeus was there as the descendants of those explorers formed a new country, and looked on as the sons of those descendants ripped the new country apart.

The old tree, named by Adventures on the Gorge when the company set up its zip line course in 2008, has seen generations of fishermen, hunters and hikers.

Some have patted his trunk, and some have climbed his branches. Some, undoubtedly, didn’t even notice the silent giant.

But Zeus might not see his 500th birthday.

There’s another hemlock standing near the old sentinel. On a recent day, that tree looked like it had just received a light snowfall, except it was late April and the weather was a comfortable 70 degrees.

Almost every limb is covered with tiny white dots. They are hemlock woolly adelgid, pests that live and lay eggs in waxy coverings between a hemlock’s needles.

“They feed on the starches within the hemlock tree, that the tree needs to grow and thrive,” said Andrea Brandon, Central Appalachian program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

“It’ll essentially suck the juice out of it.”

Under ideal conditions, trees can live up to a decade after they’ve been infested.

“It can live another six to 10 years, if it’s in a healthy stand and there aren’t any additional stressors,” Brandon said.

But ideal conditions rarely exist. If the tree encounters any other stressors, like unseasonable weather or a lack of water, death is expedited.

“If they get hit by a drought, it puts them over the edge,” Bartgis said.

In the late ’90s, the Mountain State saw a mild winter followed by a really hot, dry summer. Hemlocks in the Eastern Panhandle, already infested with woolly adelgid, became drought-stressed and died. Shenandoah Mountain was hit particularly hard.

“It killed over 90 percent of the hemlock trees,” Bartgis said.

Slow-moving threat

The hemlock woolly adelgid came to Appalachia from southern Japan over half a century ago.

Bartgis said Asia’s climate is very similar to that of the United States. The woods of eastern China are filled with maple trees, oaks, pines, hemlocks and dogwood trees, just like West Virginia. It even has rhododendrons.

“You walk through their forests and they’re amazingly like this,” Bartgis said. “Except there are monkeys in the trees.”

That makes it easy for pests like the woolly adelgid to survive the transcontinental trip, catching a ride with goods shipped from the Far East to the East Coast.

Adelgid are good hitchhikers, traveling on the wind, animal backs, bird feathers, people’s clothes and tractor-trailers. The pests reproduce asexually, so it takes only one healthy bug to start an infestation.

Hemlock woolly adelgid were first spotted in the United States in 1951, in Richmond, Va., but didn’t arrive in West Virginia until 1992, when arborists found them in trees in Grant and Pendleton counties.

Since then, the bug has slowly moved westward. The adelgid is only now reaching trees in West Virginia’s western counties.

Bud Frantz, manager of Treetops Canopy Tour, said it was difficult to spot woolly adelgid on the Adventures on the Gorge property about four years ago.

“In a few years, it exploded,” he said.

Brandon and Rodney Bartgis, state director for The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter, are worried about the recent mild winter. They said temperatures were much too warm to hurt the woolly adelgid population, and the state appears to be moving into a warm, dry spring with possible drought-like conditions.

“What could be happening is the development of the perfect storm,” Brandon said.

Trees in trouble

It’s easy to gauge the health of a hemlock: You stand at its base and look up. If you see lots of blue sky as you peer through the canopy, the tree is not very healthy.

“Fern,” the first hemlock on Adventures on the Gorge’s Treetops Canopy Tour, is not very healthy. In some places, the tree offers an almost unobstructed view of the sky. Some of its branches are almost completely barren of needles.

“If we get a warm summer, that tree’s going to be in trouble,” Bartgis said.

Cold temperatures are the pest’s worst enemy. That’s why the adelgid have ravaged hemlocks in the south, including Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains. The winters are much milder, so the adelgid populations don’t get thinned out as much.

Bartgis said temperatures must reach 16 below to significantly affect woolly adelgid populations. He said this year, temperatures barely hit zero in the coldest parts of the Mountain State.

Some pesticides can be used against the adelgid. Workers at Adventures on the Gorge treat their hemlocks with a nicotine-based compound. The chemical shrinks the adelgid’s appetite, just as cigarettes work as a hunger suppressant for humans.

“They starve themselves to death,” Frantz said.

The treatment appears to be working.

Walking across the tour’s first swinging bridge, you can see the first stand of trees Adventures on the Gorge treated against the woolly adelgid. These trees are doing well, with evidence of new growth and healthy green buds on the tips of the branches.

Zeus also was among the first group of Adventures on the Gorge’s trees to be treated against the woolly adelgid in 2009. Because of that early intervention, it has never had a bad infestation.

Unfortunately, treatment is extremely labor intensive. Workers have to treat each hemlock individually, by burying pesticide pellets in the ground near the root system or drilling a hole in the tree’s bark and injecting the chemical directly into its stem.

Scientists around the country have been trying for years to find widespread treatment against woolly adelgid. So far, they haven’t had any luck.
Bartgis said researchers have looked at beetles that might eat the woolly adelgid, but those tests have not been successful.

Brandon said in some stands of hemlock in the eastern United States, one tree is perfectly healthy while those around it are dead, victims of woolly adelgid infestations. Researchers are studying those healthy trees to figure out what made them resistant to attack.

“We really don’t have an answer right now,” she said.

‘About a hemlock’

Hemlocks make up about 1 percent of trees in West Virginia’s forests. According to a state Department of Agriculture forest health study in 2010, more than 200,000 acres in the state are at risk for hemlock woolly adelgid infestations.

Tucker County has the highest density of hemlocks in West Virginia, with the trees accounting for 7 to 9 percent of the forests there. Pocahontas and Mercer Counties come in second, with 4 to 6 percent of their woods populated by hemlocks.

Although they’re not the most common tree in West Virginia’s woods, hemlocks are very important.

“Hemlocks are like beaver. They really affect their surroundings,” Bartgis said.

Some birds prefer to nest in hemlocks. The shade from the big evergreens makes their surrounding environments cooler.

“That’s important for species that need that cool climate, like brook trout in the stream,” Bartgis said.

Adventures on the Gorge co-owner Dave Arnold said he had no idea what woolly adelgid were when the company started planning its zip line course.

It wasn’t until an arborist was hired to determine the health of its trees that Arnold learned the hemlocks were in danger.

The company has since built a prevention plan into its business strategy. One dollar of every guest’s zip line tour goes toward treating the hemlocks. There are about 5,000 mature hemlocks on Adventures on the Gorge’s 40-acre plot.
Workers now have treated more than 1,000 of the trees. The company has spent about $30,000 on treatment, not including some labor costs.

Arnold, a longtime whitewater rafting guide, said the hemlocks along the Gauley River are among his favorite features of the waterway. He said the shady evergreens give the forest an intimate feel rafters just don’t get on the New River.

“It makes the Gauley,” he said. “These hemlocks create a mood. They create an atmosphere. Any trout fisherman understands it.”

Arnold said rafting the Gauley might be a completely different experience 20 years from now, if scientists don’t find a way to stop the woolly adelgid.

“Someday we may really have a unique place. If something doesn’t change, you’re going to have a few small places where hemlocks exist,” he said.

The stakes are high. If researchers don’t find a way to wipe out woolly adelgid once and for all, West Virginia’s forests—already irrevocably changed over the state’s history by forest fires, disease and irresponsible human behavior—may never look the same.

And the next generation of explorers will never see a tree like Zeus.

Coffee keeps friendships warm

This column originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on January 2, 2015.

I remember the day I became a coffee drinker.

I stayed home from school with a blazing sore throat. That afternoon, as I laid on my grandmother’s couch in misery, I got an idea.

I went to the kitchen, grabbed one of her green plastic mugs and poured myself a steaming cup of black coffee.

My sore throat was instantly soothed but the relief didn’t last long. I drank another cup and another and another.

Momaw cut me off after I downed a whole pot and started to make another one.

My dad was never much of a coffee fan — his beverage of choice is Pepsi in a can, not a bottle thank you very much — but my mom always seems to have a cup nearby.

I always liked the way it smelled (who doesn’t?) but never understood the appeal of the bitter brew… until that day I stayed home from school. The bitterness didn’t offend my taste buds any more. Now, it held a strange attraction.

My relationship with coffee has changed over the years.

At first, I drank it when I craved it. Then, in college, I drank it to keep me awake through early-morning classes.

I didn’t develop a full-blown dependency on the stuff I began working at the Daily Mail.

The old movies portray journalists as whiskey drinkers and cigarette smokers. That stuff isn’t allowed in the newsroom anymore, but reporters have more than made up for it with their caffeine habits.

But coffee is more than just a morning pick-me-up. It has become one of my central excuses for getting together with people.

As much as I enjoy social media, there is nothing like a face-to-face conversation with a friend. But asking someone to lunch feels like a commitment.

Asking someone for coffee, however, feels like a fun errand. It’s something you can slip out of the office to complete without feeling guilty.

And drinking coffee, unlike eating, leaves lots of time for conversation. No need to worry about talking with your mouth full. If there’s a lull in the conversation, just take a swig and continue on.

In 2012, comedian Jerry Seinfeld started a web video series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

The title says it all. In each episode, Seinfeld picks up his guest in a special car — his most recent two-part episode with Jimmy Fallon featured both a 1956 Chevrolet Corvette and a 1994 Land Rover Defender 90 — and takes them to get coffee.

Seinfeld did not begin drinking coffee until middle age but, once he did, discovered something that avowed caffeine addicts already knew.

“Meeting someone for coffee suddenly seemed like a wonderful, compact, accessible and portable social interaction,” he told National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in 2013. “You don’t even really need a place. But you feel like you’re doing something. That is what coffee is.”

I suspect I will come to rely on these “portable social interactions” more frequently in the coming months.

Today marks my last day at the Charleston Daily Mail. And while I am very excited for my next job, I will really miss all the friends I have made at this newspaper.

When I first arrived in the newsroom back in 2009, it didn’t take me long to realize this newspaper’s staff are more than just co-workers. The Daily Mail is a family.

I have celebrated my co-workers’ marriages and new births, mourned with them, laughed, argued and marveled with them as we watched history unfold before our eyes.

I count every one of the people here as a dear friend and I know they feel the same way about me.

So, now that we will work in separate offices, we will need an excuse to get together. And if I know one thing about newspaper reporters, they won’t pass up a cup of coffee.

The next one’s on me.

Carnival of Soles

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 7, 2012. 

Jina Jordan has held several jobs in her life.

She owned a cleaning business and then worked as a pizza dough maker at Gino’s Pizza in Sissonville. She drives cars for the St. Albans Auction and repairs purses and leather jackets at the Fife Street Shoe Shop in downtown Charleston.

But over a decade ago, Jordan, 53, held her coolest gig of all. For one day, she was KISS bassist Gene Simmons’ cobbler.

The storied rock band played Charleston on May 2, 2000, on the first leg of their “Farewell Tour.”

KISS didn’t actually retire after that tour – they’ve embarked on seven more since then – but the Charleston date was one of the last times the band’s original lineup took the stage together.

Chris Dickerson, the Daily Mail’s city editor at the time, was eagerly anticipating that concert.

“I’m a huge KISS fan and over the years I became friends with KISS’s tour manager,” Dickerson said.

Tommy Thayer, who now plays lead guitar for the group, was KISS’s manager during the 2000 tour.

“I don’t remember all the details, but they had just got into town and there was something wrong with Gene’s boot. Tommy called me and asked me, ‘Where’s a good place I could take them?'” Dickerson said.

“I suggested the Fife Street Shoe Shop.”

That was the last Dickerson heard of Simmons’ boot problems. But it was the beginning of a very interesting day for Jordan.

On the afternoon of May 2, one of Simmons’ assistants brought the boots into the shop.

“It was a rush order,” Jordan remembers.

She had worked at the Fife Street Shoe Shop for about a year, spending much of her time repairing leather jackets and purses, mending rips, replacing zippers and fixing busted buckles. She learned to sew from her mother, Nadine.

“She sewed my sister’s wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses,” Jordan said. “I’ve got her old sewing machine, one of those real heavy-duty ones that you can sew blue jeans with.”

Jordan didn’t do a lot of work on shoes, though. Most of the broken heels and worn-out soles went to Andy Arthur, the shop’s manager.

But Jordan knew her client well. She graduated high school in 1977, two years after KISS got its first top 40 hit with “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

“I used to jam out to them when I was younger. I used to have them on an 8-track. We had a Cutlass, we called it a ‘Gutless.’ We used to jam to that,” she said.

The wildly costumed group became as famous for their onstage antics – Simmons’ fire breathing and blood spitting, Ace Frehley’s fireworks-spewing guitar, Peter Criss’ levitating drum set – as for hard-rocking hits like “Detroit Rock City” and “Calling Dr. Love.”

Well, Gene Simmons had aged a lot since Jordan was riding around in the Gutless.

He still was breathing fire and letting his foot-long tongue unfurl, but his ankles were swollen when he arrived in Charleston.

He needed wider zippers installed on the sides of his platform boots.

Though Jordan had done similar jobs before, replacing the zippers on Simmons’ boots presented some unique problems.

First, they were heavy. Even with all of Simmons’ metal adornments removed, the oversized footwear still weighed 35 pounds.

“I don’t know how he wore them onstage,” she said.

The boots also were wet when they arrived on Jordan’s workbench.

“That leather was real soft and the boots were still sweaty from the night before. It was hard to get them cut out,” she said.

Jordan was working on deadline, too: KISS was performing at the Civic Center that night and Simmons needed his boots fixed, pronto.

She started by slicing the threads that held the zippers to the boots’ leather. She had to be careful not to cut the soft, supple, soggy leather.

With the zippers removed, Jordan glued new ones in place. The glue normally sets up fast, but Jordan said the wet leather slowed the process. She used a fan to dry them, but that didn’t work very well.

Finally, after about an hour, the glue set up and Jordan stitched the zippers back into the leather.

“I guess he made it. He performed that night,” she said.

Jordan didn’t get to see her handiwork on stage, though.

Arthur told her he had received free tickets for helping the band, but that was just a little good-natured teasing among co-workers.

Jordan left the shoe shop about eight months after her chance encounter with the famous footwear. She got her old job back about two months ago but spent the intervening years as business-cleaner, dough-maker and car-driver.

She never forgot her most famous job, though.

“I still have the zippers.”

She put them in a plastic bag and placed it in a Pintor cigar box with newspaper clippings from the concert. For a long time, the zippers still smelled like Simmons’ sweat.

“I said, ‘I’m going to keep these ’cause someday something might happen with them.'”

If nothing else, the zippers help her prove that she’s not lying about her most famous client.

Silver Bridge tragedy still haunts river city residents

This story originally appeared in the December 11, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Ben Cedar crossed the Silver Bridge three times on the day it fell.

He was working as a Kirby sweeper salesman back then, and crossing the bridge was the fastest way to get across the Ohio River from his home base in Ravenswood.

“I was worried about that bridge every time I crossed over,” he said. “If you got stuck in the middle of that bridge, it would wave back and forth, back and forth.”

He crossed the Silver Bridge for the final time just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1967, headed for Gallipolis, Ohio. Once there he stopped at a Kroger store and used a payphone to call his office, just to check in.

As he was in the store, he overheard other customers talking about a bridge collapse. “I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about,” said Cedar, now 75. He asked someone what had happened, and they told him the Silver Bridge had fallen. “I said, ‘I just crossed that bridge 15 or 20 minutes ago.'”

Cedar headed back toward the span. He remembers seeing a large truck stuck on the Ohio side of the bridge, its trailer hanging down into the water. One of his co-workers was supposed to meet him in Gallipolis but had not yet arrived. For all Cedar knew, the man was on the bridge when it fell.

About the same time, 31-year-old State Trooper Rudy Odell was standing on the West Virginia side of the river. He also was surveying the damage. Odell, now 76, might have been the first law enforcement officer to respond to the disaster.

He was in downtown Point Pleasant when the bridge collapsed. Earlier that day, a man from Hutchinson Insurance called the local State Police detachment office wanting to talk with Odell, but he wasn’t at his desk. The secretary radioed Odell and asked him to stop by the man’s office. He parked his car on Main Street, just two blocks from the bridge’s on-ramp. He got out of the cruiser and had started to walk inside the insurance agency when he heard a low rumble. “It sounded like someone upstairs moving furniture,” he said.

Odell stepped back onto the sidewalk. A man across the street hollered at him, saying someone had gone through the bridge. Odell ran toward the river and up the bridge’s ramp, where he found a “very pregnant” lady standing beside her car. Her name was Charlene Clark. She had been on the bridge as it began to fall. Seeing the road collapsing before her, she shifted into reverse and sped backward toward land. Odell said Clark was “shook up,” but otherwise fine. “I would have been shook up, too,” he said. “It sheered off right at the water line on the West Virginia side.”

He left Clark and continued toward the collapse. It was a dreary, murky day, so Odell couldn’t see much of the wreckage. Some trailers had broken loose from their trucks and were floating downstream.

The murkiness did nothing to quiet the cries coming from the river, however. “I could hear them hollering for help. I didn’t know how many there were at that time,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing I could do. It was a long way out into the water. Nobody could get to it.”

Odell headed back to his car and radioed the State Police headquarters in South Charleston. He doesn’t remember what he did for the rest of his shift, but for the next few weeks he was stationed on a river barge helping recover vehicles and bodies from the river.

Forty-six people died in the disaster, but Cedar’s coworker was not one of them. He was one car back when the bridge collapsed, right behind Charlene Clark.

* * *

Opened in 1928, the Silver Bridge connected Point Pleasant and Gallipolis and was the first bridge in the United State to forgo a wire cable suspension for an “eyebar link” suspension, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The bridge was held above the water using a series of flat metal links joined by steel “eyebars.”

These eyebars were about 12 inches wide and 2 inches thick, resembling giant-sized automotive wrenches. A crack in eyebar number 330, on the Ohio side of the bridge, brought the entire structure down. Odell said as the bridge collapsed, the deck turned upside down, dumping cars and trucks into the water. The bridge fell moments later, crushing many of those vehicles.

Workers had to remove pieces of the bridge from atop the cars before they could bring the vehicles out of the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leased 50-ton cranes to make the work easier, but the process was painfully slow.

Odell’s primary job was to tag victims found inside the cars with the location and approximate time of their deaths before sending them to the morgue. He said police weren’t attempting to identify the bodies at that point, but often could.

The State Police had received calls from people all over the United States concerned their relatives might have been on the bridge when it collapsed. When one of those loved ones arrived home safely, Odell said the families often called back so police could remove their names from the list of the missing. “We never brought up a vehicle or a person that we didn’t know was there before they came up,” he said.

Once, when the Army Corps of Engineer’s crane brought up a car, Odell found a father and the man’s young son. “He had one of those little winter suits on, with the fur around the collar,” he said. “And I knew the little boy. I knew his mother. You don’t get used to it.”

* * *

The Point Pleasant River Museum will have a special memorial service at 2 p.m. this Saturday to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Silver Bridge Disaster and remember the 46 people who died.”

This is a part of history. A lot of people have been affected by this,” said Ruth Fout, who works at the museum and helped organize the event. “If they didn’t have a loved one on the bridge. . . they knew someone, or maybe their best friend’s father was on the bridge.”

Three of Fout’s neighbors died in the collapse. She was working as a clerk at Mason County Insurance at the time, just a few blocks from the bridge. “We were getting our coats ready to go home, and we heard a large noise. I can’t exactly explain how it was; I can just remember it sounded like a swoosh. Then the lights went off in the office. We didn’t know what had happened,” she said.

Then Steve Darst, her supervisor’s husband, came into the office. He always picked up his wife, Virginia, from work. As he was driving to the office that evening, he got held up in traffic near the bridge. While he waited, he watched as the bridge began to shake.” He said the eyebars looked like clapping hands,” Fout said. “He saw it fall.”

Fout was parked near the base of the bridge, but a floodwall blocked her view of the river. She could have walked another block to look in the water but did not want to. She got in her car and went home.

When she returned to Point Pleasant for a hair appointment the next day, Fout said the town was very quiet yet busy with activity as recovery efforts began. She continued to avoid looking at the river. “I never went back there during the time of the recovery,” she said.

Fout no longer averts her eyes. Beginning last year, she and her sister Ruth helped Hartford College professor Stephan Bullard and student Bridget Gromek write a new book, The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967.

The book, which contains 200 photos and a history of the bridge and its collapse, debuted Oct. 1 and has been an instant success.”We’re trying to keep it alive for the future generations because, as time goes on . . . the story gets fainter and fainter,” Fout said. “It is something we don’t want to forget.”

And even a half-century later, parts of the story are left to be told.

About three years ago, Bill Needham, a former truck driver from North Carolina, came into the river museum and told Fout he was on the bridge when it collapsed. Needham said his rig quickly sank to the bottom of the Ohio River. He held his breath until he was able to roll down a window and swim out.

Fout said Needham told her the water was pitch-black when he finally escaped his truck but as he got closer to the surface, “he could feel the water getting lighter.” He grabbed onto some floating debris, and after 15 minutes in the water was pulled onto a rescue boat.

Needham’s driving partner, Robert Towe, did not make it out of the truck. Towe, of Cana, Va., was a husband and father of three small children. He had just built a new home and purchased a farm.

It was to be his last day as a long-haul trucker.

Appalachian Distillery makes moonshine, legally

 

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, August 27, 2014.

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers. He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however. First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.

And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.

His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.

Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.

At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.

He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.

“I said, ‘There’s got to be something wrong.’”

He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.

Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.

“I said ‘I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. “He took the plunge.”

Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.

He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.

Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.

Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.

The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.

The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.

Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.

Then he ran the still for the first time.

“It was better,” Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”

Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.

The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.

This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.

The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.

Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.

Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.

The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head” and into a copper line.

The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.

Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.

Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.

The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.

This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.

The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.

“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.

Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.

The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.

Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.

Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”

They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.

These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.

Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.

“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.

Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.

Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

Freeman also is planning additional flavors — including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint — and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.