Historical debate over booze still stirs local citizens’ emotions; Pearl River, Hancock counties have long history with liquor

  • Hancock, Pearl River have always been noted bastions for production of  “shine”


Special story to At-Large

PICAYUNE, Miss., Friday, May 15 — Recent passage of a liquor bill in the State Legislature will allow citizens in Picayune to vote on whether or not to approve the sale of liquor by-the-drink inside the city limits. Proponents favoring liquor say it will generate tax income here and also attract big-name chain restaurants, like Outback, who have bar operations connected to their restaurants.

Liquor opponents say the dangers associated with drinking hard liquor are not worth any economic boost that might be generated by the sale of liquor inside Picayune.

Currently, it is legal to sell beer inside the Picayune city limits, but the county and Poplarville are dry. Wine and liquor are prohibited throughout the county, including Picayune.

Those favoring liquor say the sole vote in Picayune will give them a better chance of passing a liquor referendum since the county has historically voted against the proposition while it has always garnered a strong support from Picayune residents.

Proponents are here expected to generate a petition soon requiring a vote on the liquor issue inside Picayune. Required on the petition are the signatures of 1500 qualified registered voters.

Once the petition is authenticated and the signatures checked, the issue would be placed on a ballot for a special election.

Pearl River Co. State Rep. Mark Formby said he did not support the measure because laws already exists allowing the county as a whole to vote on the issue. “Three times in the last seven years, the people have spoken on the issue and said no,” said Formby, who represents the southern half of Pearl River Co. which includes Picayune.

The bill designated Picayune a resort area and that designation would allow the city to hold a separate, stand-alone election on the issue. Hide-A-Way Lake was also included in the bill.

“Don’t get me wrong although I am a Baptist. I am not a teetotaler, but I just disagree with the way it’s being done. Picayune is not a resort area. It’s just the wrong way. It should be done as a county,” he said.

Pearl River County citizens have since the founding of the county in 1892 struggled with how to handle legally the liquor issue.

Being on the border with Hancock County has not made the problem any easier. Hancock has historically been known as the “moonshine capital of the U.S.” And Pearl River County has always had its fair share of illegal bootleg operations and drinking, too.

Today Hancock County is totally wet while Pearl River remains a dry county.

While home-brewed liquor has always been manufactured and distributed in Hancock and Pearl River counties, production began to skyrocket when Mississippi went dry in 1908 and the U.S enacted the prohibition act in 1919.us-prohibition-badge

In fact, Hancock’s production grew so large it supplied “Mississippi hooch” and “Jordan River dew” from Milwaukee to Chicago, Galveston and Tennessee. Noted gangster Al Capone imported his liquor by the train car load from Hancock Co., telling associates it was the best he could find. He also smuggled liquor in by boat from Cuba, using boats once used by the Coast Guard.

The boats came into the Bay of St. Louis, wound up the Jordan River to Hickory Point, now the Diamond Head area. From there it was trucked or shipped by rail to Chicago and points north.

At one time sugar sales in the Kiln rose to $4,000 per week, or a thousand sacks a week, according to some historians. That was a lot of money back in the Depression. Supplies were hidden away from the distilling sites since bootleggers were afraid of “revenuers” following them to their production sites, seizing their stills and burning them.

Good moonshine today sells for $20 a gallon, according to experts, but it went for $3 a gallon back during the Depression and Prohibition.

Hancock distillers became so good at their trade that the quality of their brew was known all over the nation. In fact, some families became so skilled at brewing that they passed on the tradition from father to son. Some of the old-time recipes are still used today.

One old-time moonshiner said, “It is not that hard to make, but it takes a seasoned and a well-experienced touch to get it just right.” If you get it just right it goes down smoothly, but if it is not right, it’s like drinking straight rubbing alcohol, he added.

Noted local historian S.G. “Grandpa” Thigpen, Sr., who wrote 7 books on local history, wrote that Hancock Co. was noted for two things: sawmills and whiskey.

Old-timers said making home-brew was very time consuming and the still had to run 24/7, since shutting it down might upset the delicate balance of taste. However, from time to time, they had to move their stills to keep from being caught by the feds.

One noted historian said that while the feds might have impacted the industry with seizures, it was actually the location of the Nasa test site in northern Hancock Co. that really brought to an end Hancock’s noted industry. All of the good lands with free flowing pure spring wells were expropriated into the test site. Pure, clean water is a requirement to produce good home-brew.

Many of the same recipes used in old times to make moonshine are used today. They do few things differently. But one thing is still the same, and that is it is very dangerous to drink homemade moonshine.





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