The Great Smoky Mountains border North Carolina and the Blue Ridge peaks, of Tennessee. I hold these Appalachians dear to my heart. I will forever.
I get a little homesick imagining the cool crisp morning air, the smell of burning oak or pine, wafting through the air. I get homesick thinking of the log cabins, along the trails. Each cabin has a stone chimney, which belches wisps of smoke. I remember the scent of flapjacks cooking and coffee boiling over a wood fire, Mix these memories, with the sounds of the forest and the wildlife wakening, and it as good as heaven.
I have been most fortunate to meet many different people. Each touched me, adding seasoning to my life. None made a deeper impression on me than Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton (1946-2009). He's a storied mountain man, from Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
The mountain people and their way of life are rapidly disappearing. There are still mountain people deep in the bowels of Appalachia, but they don't make much contact, with the outside world. They are getting harder to find, every day.
Popcorn Sutton (above) and his Moonshine are different. Popcorn's been the topic of television documentaries and news coverage, for years. He's the mountain man of Maggie Valley: the one you can find.
A mountain man, in the lore, lives a simple life. Popcorn, for example, uses little modern technology, drives a model "A" Ford, with a still in the back. He lives in a one room shanty, with a wood-burning stove, for cooking and heat.
I laugh, heartily, when I see or hear some of the reports about Popcorn. I know the story of Popcorn Sutton. He's told me some of the stories himself. He's especially proud of his skill with the women and moonshine.
Tourists pay $3 to have their picture taken, with Popcorn. Often, a tourist buys a jug of his home-made Moonshine. They swallow all the stories told about him, too, but the stories don't come back up.
I must tell you, Popcorn Sutton is good as a marketer and self-promoter as I have ever seen. He could teach Madison Avenue a lesson or two. His autobiography, "Me and My Likker," is a testament to that fact. You can buy a copy, of his autobiography, when you stop to have your picture taken with Popcorn.
I am getting ahead of myself. Let me back up, a bit. Certain parts of Southeastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwestern Virginia, historically, are famous for people, events and places other than the beautiful and colourful fall foliage colours or breathtaking mountain views.
Race car drivers, Moonshine and mountain folks were the pop culture stars of mountain lifestyle, in movies and distance memories. I am glad I was able to sample that time before it faded away and became just a memory. Junior Johnson, the race car owner and driver was hauling moonshine liquor at the age of 14. He lived in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina (NC), when I lived a few miles, up the road, in Catawba County.
Wendell Scott was the first Black to race in NASCAR. He ran moonshine on the back roads of Pittsylvania County. When I went to military school, in Chatham, Virginia, during the late 1950s, Scott was our version of the Headless Horseman.
Not far from my military school is Climax, Virginia. Climax is home to the annual Moonshiners Jamboree. When Popcorn Sutton attends the Jamboree, he is the centre of attention. He's the centre of attention wherever he goes.
For those who don't know about moonshine, here's a brief primer. The word moonshine comes from a phrase, common, at one time, in the United Kingdom. Moonshining, of course, meant working at night, usually out-of-doors; working while the mood shines.
The early morning edition, of a newspaper, is the lobster edition, for much the same reason. Typesetters and printers worked through the night, in poor and stark light, to get the early edition published. When they stumbled, out of the press room, around dawn, their eyes were dry and bright red, from rubbing. Passers-by called them lobsters.
Makers, of illegal whisky, worked covertly and usually at night. They were moonshiners. Therefore the term for their product, moonshine.
J R Hafer tells of meeting Popcorn through his brother, Andy. One summer, Andy rented a house trailer from Popcorn. Sometimes, Andy and Popcorn, would sit on the porch drinking and talking. Andy introduced me to the old Moonshiner.
Popcorn Sutton is an artisan. There's no doubt about it, and he's known all over the USA for making of the finest Moonshine. Andy and I visited him a couple years ago. And (left; click for full size), Popcorn and I spent some time reminiscing. Andy and I decided to buy a jar to take home with us. When Andy drank some of it he turned red and said "Whoow" in a husky hoarse voice. I didn't have the courage. I'm older and wiser than my brother.
Popcorn has a volatile temper, too. He always carries a pistol and a couple wads of bills in his bib overalls. He showed us his .38 calibre pistol, so we knew not to pull anything rash. Then he pulled out a thick roll of bills from his overalls. Andy didn't have any money and of course I had to pay for Moonshine. Did I say I was the wiser sibling? Well, maybe no? I never did get my money back.
Popcorn has a scraggily, rat's nest beard. His thin stature gives him the look of an old mountain man. He's 61, according to police records.
Once, years ago, Popcorn was in a saloon, in Western North Carolina. He was telling his tall tales and downing rotgut. The saloon had a new popcorn machine. Sutton staggered over and put his money in the new contraption. The machine ate his money, but did not yield any popped corn. He lost his temper, pulled out his 38 calibre gun, and shot the machine. He had to pay for the damages, to the popcorn machine, and since then has been known as "Popcorn" Sutton.
Moonshine hauling race car drivers have given way to the slick young NASCAR drivers. Most mountain folk have moved to the city. Some bought a condominium in Florida.
Summers, tourists flood the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. State Tourism tells visitors to go to Cherokee, for see the Indian crafts Visit Grandfather Mountain and experience the famous swinging bridge. Linville has a gorge worth the side trip. Oh, yes, go to Maggie Valley and meet Popcorn Sutton. Popcorn is a tourist attraction as sure as is the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Popcorn Sutton is renown for custom-made stills and Moonshine. He lectures anyone about his stainless steel "stills" and his "top shelf" Moonshine. Expect your lecture any time, anywhere.
The recognized senior spokesperson for all the moonshiners in Western North Carolina, Popcorn Sutton is not shy when talking about his work and giving demonstrations of his working still in the bed of his model "T" pick-up truck.
Not long ago, while sitting in his model "T," waiting for a parade to start, Popcorn fired up his still and sold Moonshine, from the curb. Yep, did good business, on the street, in front of God and County. Popcorn is not a man to miss an opportunity.
As you travel, through Maggie Valley, on state highway 74, when you start up the mountain there is an old, oblong shed. It was once was a roadside market. The rusted tin roof sits atop unsound walls. Some boards, of the weather-worn walls, are falling away. The grass is long, growing around the old, rusted metal objects, which are lying around. There is an old two horse wagon, an abandoned car, discarded ploughs and rusted metal barrels filled with trash. There is an old wooden sign nailed to the side of the building that says, "Hav yur pitcher taken with a real moonshiner $5.00." The news media calls Popcorn Sutton's junky old building an "antique store." There are no antiques there and no store.
Popcorn told Andy and me, straight out, that he had to find a large tanker truck to fill an order of moonshine. A large tanker truck can haul 7 or 8 thousand gallons. Now, that's much hooch!
Every community has its characters and clowns. Some character are public facades, others are naturally weird. Popcorn Sutton is the "real deal." Being a mountain man carries a philosophy and a lifestyle as well as the public persona.
Popcorn's philosophy, to hear him tell it, is to make the best whiskey and live the life of a true mountain man; dedicated to that task puts it mildly. He's also dedicated to promoting himself, his book and his documentary film. Oh yes, he has made a good living at it, too.
The local law understands Popcorn Sutton. His ability to attract many tourists, who leave money, in town, to pay municipal bills is an unspoken blessing. When the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) comes calling, as in 1974, 1981 and 1985, it makes an example of old Popcorn. The ATF charge him with, you guessed it, moonshining. The ATF likes to visit around election time.
Popcorn Sutton is smarter than he looks and knows the old mountain saying "Even an animal don't (defecate) where he eats." People take for granted that Popcorn lives in Maggie Valley. Other than the fact he has a post office box and sells his goods in Maggie Valley, that's only an assumption. He lives 65 miles away, in one of the oldest towns in Tennessee.
Parrottsville, Jonesboro and Dandridge are the oldest towns in Tennessee. Popcorn lives in Parrottsville settled, in 1769, by John Parrott, who a tavern. Andrew Jackson supposedly stopped for a drink on his way to his inauguration.
Recently, the local volunteer fire department raced to 324 Upper Road, close to Parrottsville, The fire service responded to an anonymous caller, reporting a blaze in a building, on the property owned by Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton.
When the fire department responds, so does the sheriff's department. Popcorn arrived shortly after the police did. Someone said he was asking them, nicely, not to report what they found in the building.
For years, the Sheriff of Cocke County, which includes Parrottsville, turned a blind eye to many illegal acts. Any trucker, who passed Newport Tennessee on I-40, in the 1960s and 1970s, can tell you about blind justice. Brothels, lining both sides of the road, flourished, immune, it seems, from the law.
The criminal climate changed in Cocke County, in 2008. There's a continuing undercover investigation, by federal law enforcement. The brothels closed. An undercover agent bought 800 gallons of the clear liquid firewater. Seemingly harmless events are no longer ignored.
I think Jason Sandford, of the "Mountain Xpress News," summed up the circumstances best: "So the news of Popcorn's arrest brought with it a tinge of nostalgia and a bit of regret another mountain tradition is coming to an end. Perhaps no other enduring image the mountain moonshiner better embodies these traits: stubborn independence, dogged persistence and a little ingenuity."
Although Popcorn Sutton looks much older from a distance or a passing car, he's 61; not especially old these days. I've heard some talk that he was in his nineties. The rumours feed his myth, well. Where he will spend the balance of his life is now in question.
After the fire, search of the property owned by Marvin Popcorn Sutton turned up many interesting goods. Federal agents found three working stills, a 1000 gallon tank, 800 gallons of finished moonshine and a hundred gallons of corn mash. This was according to a news release by the U. S. Attorney's office. Popcorn Sutton faces possession of firearms charges, which is a violation of his probation for past felony convictions.
Sometime after the above item posted, I received an e-mail from a Grubstreet.ca reader who saw my story about “Popcorn” Sutton, a few years back. He wondered what happened to Sutton, at his court appearance in Knoxville, TN. "Did he have to go to prison or not?"
That e-mail got me thinking, perhaps, I left the readers in somewhat a state of limbo and assuming they had “gleaned” the information for themselves. That assumption may have not been a fair and accurate one. Therefore, the following is an attempt to rectify that oversight:
Nationally known moonshiner, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, appeared in a documentary about making moonshine; that is, untaxed homemade corn liquor. The film aired on the History Channel and in other media, including magazines and public television, was a world-famous marketer of his way of life, more than his wares. He spent more than three decades building a reputation as one of the South’s top makers of white lightning. He’s starred in various documentaries about the tradition and penned an autobiography, “Me and My Likker,” which is now a collector’s item and very hard to get. "
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton of Parrottsville, Tennessee, with his wife Pam Sutton at his side, waived indictment by a federal grand jury and admitted to charges of moonshining and possession of a gun. Then the news comes to me, by way of a phone call. Our incorrigible rascally moonshiner friend, whose entrenched ways endeared himself, not only to us, but to a devoted following, not just in Appalachia, but all over the USA, in documentaries and across the Internet, “Popcorn has taken his own life, rather than report to federal prison, where he was supposed to18-month sentence.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton died March 16, 2009, by his own hand. Just after Marvin died and before I learned he was dead, I received a letter from him telling me to send any book orders I received for his book, to make sure his wife filled the orders. He gave me Pam’s address.
Since then, I have had threats from relatives and folks who would not have anything to do with him when he was alive. Popcorn had many buried secrets, but that is a whole other story.
JR Hafer writes from his home in central Florida.
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