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    New Book Highlights East Lake Outer Banks Moonshine Industry

    April 1, 2024

    When Ghosts Made Moonshine, Prohibition in the Albemarle is a just published book by local author Chris Barber. It is a fascinating and detailed look at what happened in northeastern North Carolina when the Volstead Act of 1920 took effect, making the sale, purchase, or consumption of alcohol illegal anywhere in the United States.

    That marked the beginning of Prohibition, and for the lumbering and farming communities of northeastern North Carolina, Prohibition was a government sponsored golden parachute. The once seemingly inexhaustible supply of lumber had, in fact, been exhausted. In 1920, farm income was roughly equivalent to household income nationwide, but over the next decade and into the 1930s, as commodity prices fell and foreign competition became more robust, farmers lagged ever farther behind the rest of the country.

    The Volstead Act provided for the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…” Until repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment on December 5, 1933, it was the law of the land, and in the remote villages and homesteads of northeastern North Carolina, home-brewed liquor—moonshine—became a thriving business.

    When Ghosts Made Moonshine Book

    And nowhere was that business more successful than in the remote, barely accessible swamp and morass of East Lake on the Dare County mainland.

    The title of the book is taken from a 1931 New York Herald Tribune article by Ben Dixon MacNeill, A Ghost That Makes Booze.

    In his story, MacNeill comes to the point almost immediately.

    “The ghost makes liquor,” he wrote. “Makes liquor with a prodigality and completeness that is without parallel anywhere else in this country, and liquor of an exceedingly high and desirable quality.”

    The book is meticulously researched and when asked if, in fact, the moonshiners of East Lake seemed to disappear like ghosts when federal agents showed up, Barber said that was indeed what happened.

    “Part of the story is the underground network and spies and informants. So agents could rarely go to East Lake and surprise anybody. It was just not possible because (East Lake residents) already knew,” she said.

    When Ghosts Made Moonshine looks at the effects of Prohibition throughout the Albemarle region, and although there were moonshine operations from Currituck County to Bertie, it was apparent that the volume of moonshine coming out of Buffalo City dwarfed everything else in the region.

    The scale of liquor production at East Lake was indeed prodigious. After Amos Bateman and Leonard Twiford from East Lake were arrested in Elizabeth City with 55 gallons of whiskey, she wrote in her book, “Bateman and Twiford may have been the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”

    “Though there were other moonshiners in the area who also made the news, the sheer volume of hooch coming from East Lake garnered attention and a call for action,” she goes on to write.

    The East Lake operation was not some backyard operation with distilled spirits dripping from a copper tube filling three or four gallons per day. Agents were rarely able to find anyone to arrest at East Lake, but there were times when stills and equipment were found and then destroyed.

    A first raid in the East Lake area in 1922 yielded two 60-gallon stills. Four years later, a raid at South Lake, just north of Buffalo City, found six stills capable of producing 100 gallons of liquor per day.

    The scale of the East Lake production is just one of a number of surprising pieces of information that Barber includes in her book.

    It was a rye and corn whiskey and, by all accounts, some of the best around.

    “They did have a reputation for quality,” Barber told the Coastal Review in an interview.

    East Lake Outer Banks Historic Moonshine Bottle

    The book is filled with rarely-seen photographs from the heyday of prohibition, and one of the pictures is of a bottle with a professionally printed label reading “East Lake Pure Rye Whiskey.” The bottle is part of a prohibition-era collection at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, and for the picture, the caption in the book reads, “East Lake liquor was often labeled, as the name drew a premium on the bootleg market.”

    The quality of the product was just one part of what made East Lake a center of moonshine production. From its logging days, when Buffalo City was a thriving logging town, a well-established transportation network had been created, and the bootleggers tapped right into that.

    “They had connections to Norfolk, Norfolk had deeper pockets, and once their liquor went north to Norfolk, it also went to Baltimore and New York,” Barber said.

    That transportation network created jobs along every step of the way, something Barber notes in her book.

    “The continuous flow of liquor from East Lake through or past Elizabeth City was the lifeblood of many families. If the moonshiner stopped making liquor, then other men in the business chain were out of work,” she wrote.

    Meticulously researched and very well-written—Barber was a lifelong educator who began her career as an English teacher—When Ghosts Made Moonshine is a book filled with fascinating details about everyday life in the Albemarle region 100 years ago. Ultimately the failed social experiment that was Prohibition came to an end, but the stories from that time make for a fascinating story.