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The Real Dukes of Hazard

By Edited May 28, 2014 0 0

Marvin Sutton, Tennessee Moonshiner

You don't hear much on this type of person any longer. He was distilling corn into whiskey as a kid with his dad back when NASCAR icon Junior Johnson was running his very own white lightning across the hills of western North Carolina. He kept everything in the process the way it always was: from the outdoor, copper-tubed still hidden away in the woods to storage in old cars and barns.

Born in 1946, Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton lived in one of the few but self-proclaimed "moonshine capitals of the world," Cocke County, Tennessee. He spent his youth around stills set-up in the woods where he cut down a huge stock of hardwood used to heat the boiler, mostly during the night so they weren't as readily seen, working by moonlight and the light from the fire.

Paying an extra tax on what they deemed a "farm product" was unconscionable to the Scots-Irish descendants of the settlers of this region. These folks would be referred to as libertarian instead of conservative today, since they are very guarded about rights and want to see as little of government as possible. They disliked law breaking intensely, and moonshining is illegal, but they had to provide for families in a rural agricultural area were jobs are difficult to find at best and nonexistent at worst. During the Great Depression numerous survived by illegal whiskey production; during Prohibition they truly flourished and expanded businesses, acquiring automobiles and building even better barns and stills.

So, the era where Sutton found himself in the last 20 years was a time when other drugs made their way into manufacture, bringing more and more law enforcement with worsening tempers (the state is 4th in crystal meth manufacturing in the nation). Still, he in no way changed his methods of distilling the corn. He kept the copper-tubed still fired with hardwood and drove his old Ford Fairlane named "the three-jug" because he paid three jugs of booze for her.

He turned out to be quite a superstar as the supposed "last moonshiner" and had written a book about his exploits. He visited restaurants and bars around Cocke County and western North Carolina. He appeared in documentaries about the unique business he was immersed in.

Sutton had numerous run-ins with the police, and in the 1970's was arrested for white whiskey production for the first time. He had a few more mishaps with the law (not all of them about alcohol) but in 2007, he sold fifty gallons to an undercover officer and was found guilty the next year. The agents found three 1,000 gallon stills on his land, along with guns and ammo, and 800 gallons of moonshine.

His demeanor sank. Throughout the trial, his chats with friends about whiskey, rare in the first place, became nonexistent. One of the last pictures taken by a buddy outside the courthouse at the time shows him sitting down sad-eyed, holding up a middle finger. Worst of all, a plea deal included forfeiting the stills, whiskey and guns, and most of his other property in order to decrease the sentence from 15 years to a year-and-a-half.

Sutton received that eighteen month sentence in January, 2009, but people who knew him said he was devastated. After years of telling them that his last run of whiskey would indeed be his last, people believed it this time around. His wife of just a couple years found him in late January, dead by his very own hand, in his old Ford. The Wall Street Journal posted an article about Marvin's arrest and can be found online: Popcorn Sutton, Legenday Moonshiner, Headed to the Pokey

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