Oregon Moonshine: Bootleggers Busts and Brawls

By Marshall Hammond

Bruce Haney drank moonshine once. The next day the Boring, OR historian’s friends told him he sang and danced the night away to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt.” This was not typical behavior for Haney. It was the last time he touched the stuff.
It was his fascination with Oregon history rather than admiration for the beverage that led the 38-year-old Haney to write Oregon Moonshine: Bootleggers Busts and Brawls.
Haney first encountered stories of Oregon’s moonshiners while writing his first book, Eccentric Tales of Boring, Oregon (The History Press 2021).
“When I was looking around and deciding what my next book would be, I thought ‘you know, that was actually kind of fun, those stories were interesting, why don’t I dig deeper into that?’,” says Haney.
Moonshine, aka mountain dew, hooch, white lightning or homebrew, can be made from a variety of materials. “A classic moonshine would be a clear corn whiskey. But people were making it out of whatever they had. If you had plum trees, that’s what you’re making your moonshine out of,” says Haney.
Whatever it’s made of, the defining feature of moonshine, despite what some beverage marketers may say, is that it is produced illegally. “Anytime you’re making booze and not paying the tax man, you’re making Moonshine,” says Haney.
Oregon attracted moonshiners for a number of reasons. The state’s mostly protestant settlers enacted strict regulations on alcohol. But an influx of loggers and fur trappers during the 1800s and early 1900s created a market for illicit hooch. During Prohibition, a moonshiner could sell their product at $10 a quart in Oregon, when in North Carolina high quality moonshine could go for as little as $1.50 a gallon.
“It was mostly for money,” says Haney. “Same way people get into manufacturing drugs or any of that stuff. It’s illegal so it’s worth more.”
Moonshiners were also attracted to Oregon’s thick forests, remote canyons and plentiful sources of water, features which also made an ideal setting for the car chases, shootouts and death-defying escapes which are peppered throughout the book.
The first tale starts in 1836, when “mountain man” James Connor joined a group of Presbyterian missionaries on their way to Oregon. Before long, Connor was kicked out of the group and took up moonshining in Oregon City. His operation got the attention of a zealous federal lawman named Elijah White, who despite having no real legal authority, seized and destroyed his still. Connor built a new still which White also destroyed, at which point Connor challenged White to a duel.
Many of the stories from Oregon Moonshine are fun and humorous, such as that of Nettie Connett of Clackamas County. She was known for dressing and cussing like a logger, being a skilled hunter and impressing customers at her favorite watering hole by doing a headstand on a bar stool every year on her birthday, a practice which continued at least until her late 70’s. Connett was also a notorious moonshiner who operated several stills and had multiple run-ins with the law during the 1910s and ‘20s
Some of the stories are more tragic. There’s the “riches-to-rags” story of August Erickson, owner of the famed Erickson’s Saloon in downtown Portland, which was said to have the longest bar in the world. Once a wealthy man, Erickson died poor and imprisoned in 1925 because he couldn’t give up moonshining.
Then there’s Dave West, a 68-year-old moonshiner from Plainview, driven over the edge by his treatment at the hands of the local sheriff. After lamenting to his wife, “What he is doing hurts me, I can’t let him destroy my property and trample on my feelings,’’ West shot and killed the sheriff and his companion before turning his gun on himself in 1922.
Sometimes the moonshine itself was the danger, as it was not always produced with consumer safety in mind. Haney relates stories of young people being struck with temporary blindness, paralysis and death after imbibing questionable moonshine, or “rotgut.”
According to Haney, the worst period was during National Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.
“It never became violent until Prohibition. People that were busted before Prohibition for just not paying taxes, those were all pretty much clean affairs. So I think Prohibition was a mistake,” says Haney.
The end of Prohibition spelled the end of moonshining. With legal liquor readily available there was no longer much profit in it. The practice continues to this day, more often as a hobby than a way to make money.
Oregon Moonshine: Bootleggers Busts and Brawls is published by The History Press and available at arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467153027. It is also available at Powell’s City of Books and online retailers.

Oregon Moonshine: Bootleggers Busts and Brawls

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