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Revenuers stage a moonshine raid and ruin one elderly man's day Spirit of yesteryear endures in woods of rural Maryland


ORAVILLE -- It took more than 60 years, but the revenuers finally caught up with John M. Morgan Sr.

The first time they chased him through the woods of St. Mary's County, he was a boy during Prohibition making a few dollars tending a bootlegger's still. He was nimble afoot in those days, and they never got him.

But when he returned home to Oraville from breakfast on the morning of Dec. 29, Mr. Morgan, now 77, had nowhere to run. State and county officers surrounded his car and placed him under arrest. The charges: possessing illegal, untaxed liquor and equipment used to make moonshine.

Sixty years after the era of bathtub gin officially passed from the American scene, a cottage industry built on hooch survives in Southern Maryland and other rural areas of the state. Most of the old moonshiners have gone the way of the Volsted Act, but people with a taste for white lightning can still find it if they know the right people, knock on the right door.

"The market that is out there is the people who have an acquired taste for it," says Marvin Bond, spokesman for the office of the state comptroller. "Somebody who tried it at a party once and liked it."

"The standard joke is, moonshine makes the best eggnog," says Cpl. Patrick Reilly of the Charles County sheriff's office. After the Morgan raid, Corporal Reilly says, he got a few phone calls at his office from people kidding around, complaining that the authorities had just ruined their holiday.

It certainly ruined Mr. Morgan's day. "I didn't know what was going on," Mr. Morgan recalls, sitting out front of his house on a recent misty afternoon. "I thought somebody got hurt or something. I never saw so many cars" parked on Morganza Turner Road.

Officers had come from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the state comptroller's office, the state police and sheriff's offices of St. Mary's and Charles counties. They went into Mr. Morgan's wooden shed and carried out Mason jars and bottles containing 59 gallons of crystal-clear moonshine. They tramped into the woods behind the shed and hauled out a 40-gallon copper still.

"I didn't know it was there," says Mr. Morgan, a retired carpenter. "I thought my boys took it away."

One of his sons is Leonard V. Morgan, 55, who lives nearby on Sandgates Road and was also visited by revenuers that morning. The 11 officers split into two groups; one raided Mr. Morgan's place, another group busted Leonard. The officers arrested Leonard Morgan and seized a 30-gallon still and about nine gallons of brandy-like liquor.

These days, customers pay about $25 to $30 for a gallon of moonshine, Corporal Reilly says. That's about the same price as cheap whiskey, or about what mid-priced liquor would cost without the taxes: $13 per gallon federal, $1.50 state.

But it's more than the price that stokes the demand for hooch. It's also the mystique and the fact that homemade whiskey has been a way of life for generations.

"It's more novelty than anything," says Sgt. William Mancuso of the Charles County sheriff's office. "It's a big thing at Christmas, a major thing at hunting season."

"It's just a family tradition, that's all," says Mr. Morgan. "You make some for Christmas to make eggnog."

And so he did for years, following in the footsteps of his uncle, who would heat fermented corn-meal mash in a covered lard can on the stove and let the alcohol vapors cool at the top, collect as liquid and drip into a bowl in the center of the can.

A still works much the same way, with the fermented mash -- usually consisting of corn, water and sugar -- heated in a copper vessel. The alcohol vapors pass through a metal coil, cool, then ++ drip out as whiskey, clear as water with the punch of 100, 110, sometimes 130-proof.

"If moonshine ain't 100-proof, it ain't fit to drink," says Mr. Morgan. Well, the stuff the revenuers hauled out of his shed tested at 98 to 99-proof, or about 49-percent alcohol, Mr. Bond says. But Mr. Morgan does not want to talk about the contents of the shed, much less vouch for its quality, not while he's facing a $1,000 fine and a year in jail on each of two charges.

Mr. Morgan says he's never been charged with liquor violations before. That includes the years he spent during Prohibition working for bootleggers for $2 a day, stoking the wood fire beneath the mash, running off and bottling the whiskey: $1 a gallon, 50 cents a jar. The day the revenuers found the still in the woods near Oraville, he escaped arrest by fleeing to a marsh and slogging through a stream.

Mr. Morgan claims he hasn't made any whiskey in five, maybe 10 years, and that was only about 6 gallons a year for his own enjoyment. "I don't see where there's any harm in making a little whiskey just to drink, not selling it or anything," says Mr. Morgan.

State law, of course, forbids home production of distilled spirits in any amount, even for personal use. Household vintners and brewers are allowed to make up to 200 gallons a year of wine and beer for their own use. Only St. Mary's County allows unlicensed retail sale of homemade wine. Mr. Bond says the strict law against moonshine is a vestige of Prohibition, but as far as he knows no legislators have ever seriously discussed changing it. Prohibition and even taxes aside, Sergeant Mancuso says, the law should be enforced "if for nothing else than health purposes . . . there's no control over what you're getting."

Mr. Bond says he's seen cases where officers broke up stills and found dead squirrels and "some smaller animals in the mash," apparently added to hasten fermentation. Authorities tell stories of lye or bleach being added to the mix. Then there's the danger of lead poisoning from copper implements sealed with lead-based solder, Mr. Bond says, adding that "we have found a still where they used an old truck radiator as the condenser."

Mr. Morgan says he doesn't believe any of it.

"They're just talking through their nose," he says, insisting that moonshine "tastes better than any government whiskey. And I believe it's better for you."

The task of enforcing the homemade-liquor law falls to 14 police officers within the state Comptroller's Investigative Services Unit, a recently reorganized division of 35 people that works closely with local authorities and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Tracking bootleggers is only a small part of their job. Most of their time is spent inspecting restaurants, liquor stores and taverns to see that liquor and tobacco sales are on the up and up. Before merging with the division of motor fuel inspectors this year, the alcohol unit ran on an annual budget of $696,000, says Mr. Bond, and conducted 5,600 inspections last year.

For the past decade, the state has seized about five stills a year throughout Maryland and made as many arrests, with the greatest activity in Southern and Western Maryland, Mr. Bond says. Mr. Bond could not provide a figure on the conviction rate for accused moonshiners. In the 1960s, the state got maybe 20 stills a year. One year, that included a monstrous setup in Cecil County, the biggest still the state ever confiscated, capable of producing 500 gallons of whiskey a day, more than 10 times the average still's capacity.

That bust in Cecil County ranks among the most violent in state history, Mr. Bond says, as revenue agents shot it out with moonshiners. No one was injured, but many official cars were damaged.

Lately, liquor raids are usually more polite. "These people are farmers, doing this on the side," Sergeant Mancuso says.

He smiles when he thinks about one of the biggest liquor raids in recent years, the day he and officers of the comptroller's office entered a small house on a dirt road in the northwest corner of Charles County with a search warrant. That was two weeks before Christmas 1990. Many folks' holidays were ruined.

"Every room, every hallway, every corner of that house had wine, moonshine, peach brandy," the sergeant says.

The revenuers seized 200 gallons of illicit alcohol, plus $23,500 in cash.

The lady of the house, Alberta Hawkins, then 76, sat watching television during the raid. She later pleaded guilty to one of seven charges, paid a $14,500 fine and was placed on three years' probation. "She was very congenial," Sergeant Mancuso says.

So it was when the authorities came for Mr. Morgan. No handcuffs, no angry words, no resistance. The chase was over. For his part, Mr. Morgan professes bewilderment about why the pursuit goes on at all.

"The old moonshiners have died and gone," says Mr. Morgan. "If there's any being made in the county, I don't know about it."

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