Retired ATF agent’s ‘Moonshiners and Revenuers’ aims to paint more accurate picture of the former ‘pillar of southern identity’

Posted 4/21/21

In the days before illegal drugs were widely accessible, homemade alcohol was the country’s contraband du jour.

Following the 18th amendment’s repeal in 1933 — concluding the decade-long …

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Retired ATF agent’s ‘Moonshiners and Revenuers’ aims to paint more accurate picture of the former ‘pillar of southern identity’

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Posted

In the days before illegal drugs were widely accessible, homemade alcohol was the country’s contraband du jour.

Following the 18th amendment’s repeal in 1933 — concluding the decade-long alcohol prohibition era — hundreds of moonshiners maintained their illicit operations. And nowhere were the bootleggers more prolific than in the U.S. South.

To combat moonshine production and sales, the federal government created a new agency that would eventually become the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In his new book, “Moonshiners and Revenuers,” Chatham native and retired ATF agent Johnny Binkley recounts the bureau’s evolution from a loosely organized subset of the Internal Revenue Service to a full-fledged and well-respected executive force.

But in his 25 years with the ATF, Binkley witnessed not only a shift within the bureau, but a cultural inflection point across the southern states. His story is of more than alcohol seizures. Moonshine was a pillar of southern identity, Binkley says, and its collapse — thanks in part to his work with the ATF — fundamentally changed the way North Carolinians live.

I spoke with Binkley to learn more about his background and the inspiration for his book. The native Chathamite, now 76 years old, lives in Emerald Isle near his son and three grandchildren after having retired from the ATF in 1994.

Tell me a bit of your history in Chatham County and how you landed with the ATF.

I grew up in Chatham County, grew up on a farm. And like most people at the time, when high school was over I joined the Army. When I got out of the Army I went to college, and then I was just looking for a job. I applied to several places, took several tests, and just by a stroke of luck ATF was hiring at that time. I didn’t have any special background in law enforcement, but they just happened to be hiring, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

So that was in 1969, and I understand that right about that time the ATF was undergoing some dramatic changes in organization and scope. In your book, you say it began as the “redheaded stepchild of the IRS.” But that started to change during your tenure, right?

Absolutely. When I came to work, we were part of the IRS, therefore, revenuers. And all we did was work moonshine liquor — whiskey stills and moonshine stills. But about 1975, 1976, it got to the point where the federal government basically said, “This is not a federal problem anymore.” And about that same time, a little earlier, the Gun Control Act regulating firearms and explosives had been passed. And so we kind of shifted gears from alcohol to firearms and explosives. In 1972, ATF became a separate bureau; we were moved out from under the IRS and became a separate bureau within the Treasury Department. So it was a tough transition for a lot of people, as I mention in the book, who had done nothing in their whole career but work liquor.

Despite assuming new responsibilities that directed resources away from catching moonshiners, you say in your book that illegal alcohol production was still a big problem, especially here in the south. We often associate moonshine with prohibition era, but just how prolific were moonshiners even in the late 20th Century, especially around Chatham?

When I was growing up in Chatham County, the closest place you could buy legal liquor was Greensboro, or Raleigh or Durham. And times were hard back then. People didn’t have a lot of money back in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. So, if you were a person who consumed alcohol, you could drive to Greensboro for an hour or two and pay $15 for half a gallon of liquor, or you could drive five minutes to the local bootlegger and pay $5 for half a gallon. So it was a matter of economics and availability. Most counties in North Carolina, and the whole southeast really, were what they call dry counties — you could not buy legal alcohol. But even when that started to change, the old ways hung around for a bit.

It was just a way of life for a lot of people in the southeast. And a lot of people just think of moonshine in the mountains. But as I point out in the book, the Raleigh area, which included Chatham County, had a lot of bootleggers. We had what we called a major violator list. That would have been the 20 top violators in the state. And they were the ones who we concentrated on. Well, five of the 20 were in the Raleigh area. So there was a lot of liquor made in and around Raleigh up until and through the 70s, and we made a couple of big seizures over in Chatham County in Siler City. One that I remember being involved in, I think we seized about 150 gallons between Siler City and Silk Hope.

The book is full of exciting accounts, detailing some of your biggest adventures on the job. Are there any that stand out in your memory? Let’s give readers a teaser of what sort of stories they’ll find in your book.

Well there are really a lot, but one that stands out in my mind was actually up in Orange County over on the other side of Chapel Hill. I got information that a particular bootlegger was going to Wilkes County, which was considered the moonshine capital. So he went up there to bring back a load of liquor, and I had an informant who told me about it. We set up on I-85, just the other side of Hillsborough, and right about the time we expected here’s the guy come driving down the road. We followed him and pulled up on the side of it, and you could actually see the gallon jugs of liquor in the car. He had 232 gallons of pure white liquor in the car that you could see just looking in.

He knew me and I knew him, so I motioned for him to pull over and he started to pull over. But I told the driver, “You watch this guy, he’s crazy.” Well, sure enough, he took off down I-85, us chasing behind him. And mind you we’re going down with traffic running both ways. And all of a sudden he turned off the interstate and went down through this little field. He went up an embankment and then went over the embankment, and I thought he must have gone into a lake, or river or whatever. But we were still right behind him and as it turned out, there was a little service road that ran down beside the interstate there on the other side. We did eventually catch him, but that was pretty exciting and interesting. Most of the bootleggers, once you got them, they pretty much give up. But that was an interesting one, chasing him down, weaving through traffic.

You’ve been retired now for more than 25 years. What moved you to put this book together now exploring the ATF’s history and your own experience as an agent?

I’ll tell you why I wrote it — it was a different time back then, and I think a special time. And there’s a lot of misinformation about the moonshiners and the revenuers, especially from TV programs. I just felt like somebody needed to write something that had a little bit of first hand knowledge about what it was really like.

When I was getting ready to retire, I realized even a lot of our own agents didn’t know anything about those days. They would ask me about it, and it really was just an interesting time. Growing up in the South, there was a lot of bad stuff; I won’t even try to defend it. But it was a special time, too, and I think somehow we lost a lot of positive things from that era. Now, I’m not saying moonshine itself is a positive thing, but I am saying it was a way of life, for better or for worse. It was a way of life for a lot of people in the southeast United States, and I thought it was worth telling that story.

Where can folks pick up a copy of your book?

Locally, the gift store there in Siler City at that Steakhouse, Haley Bales, they’ve got it. And the world famous fruitcake place down in Bear Creek, Southern Supreme Fruitcake & More, they have sold several copies for me. And, of course, you can get it from the publisher, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or order a copy directly from me at binkleyjc@gmail.com, 919 906-6667.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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