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Closing Courthouse Brought Moonshiners To Justice

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Closing Courthouse Brought Moonshiners To Justice


Closing Courthouse Brought Moonshiners To Justice

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Moonshine used to be big business in the American South - an illegal business that also kept the federal courthouses busy. Now, one of those facilities once on the frontlines in the war on homemade booze is shutting down. It's one of six federal courts closing in the South. Michael Tomsic of member station WFAE brings us this story from Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: The Johnson J. Hayes federal courthouse sticks out in Wilkesboro. It's a white structure with sleek columns on an otherwise old-school brick Main Street. The courtroom on the second floor is locked up with the lights off all but one or two days a month now. But this building saw a lot of action in the 1970s, even though just 2,000 people lived in town.

MAYOR MIKE INSCORE: In its heyday, it was a hub of activity.

TOMSIC: Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore.

INSCORE: It had vitality that brought people to the downtown. Sometimes for the right reasons, other times for the wrong reason.

TOMSIC: A lot of people came here for the same wrong reason: getting caught brewing and smuggling illegal whiskey - moonshine.

JENNIFER FURR: Wilkes County at one time was known as the moonshine capital of the world.

TOMSIC: Jennifer Furr is the director of the Wilkes Heritage Museum down the street from the courthouse.

FURR: On display, we have a moonshine still as you would find it in the woods, and then we also have a busted still as you would find after the ATF revenuers would find it.

TOMSIC: The revenuers busted stills for what's now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. About a dozen agents worked out of the courthouse's basement in the '70s.

BOB GRAHAM: This doesn't look familiar at all.

TOMSIC: Bob Graham was one of them, and this is his first time back in decades. Most of his old office is locked, but he recognizes something when he goes for a door that opens to a back room.


TOMSIC: So, would you, you know, best you can remember, kind of tell me what used to be in here?

GRAHAM: Liquor or moonshine. We only kept samples of the different seizures.

TOMSIC: Graham says this room used to be stocked with gallon jugs and quart-size bottles. He swears they'd dump them out after testing for chemicals. Now, it's a storage space filled with boxes. Graham's boss back then, Bob Powell, still lives in Wilkesboro with his wife, Betty. Powell has a lot of stories about the revenuers. How often were you guys catching people?

BOB POWELL: About every 10 minutes.

BETTY POWELL: The lawyers loved them.

TOMSIC: But priorities changed, and the basement office closed in the '80s. The ATF left town to focus on violent crime in big cities, and locals say it's been a long time since the court was as busy. The other five courts closing in the South are also well past their glory years. They're all scheduled to shut down within a year or two. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.


MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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