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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Comments on mountain culture

West began work toward a divinity degree at Vanderbilt University after graduating from LMU. Just as at LMU, he worked his way through and bought meals for his friend Jesse Stuart. He wrote his dissertation on an isolated mountain community in eastern Kentucky, using his understanding of mountain culture to form connections with the residents. He understood that asking too many questions, especially about moonshining, was not a good idea. West remembers his own community's moonshining tradition here as well, sharing some details of how moonshiners alerted each other to threats from federal agents.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

You graduated from LMU in '29?
Yeah. So, went into Vanderbilt. Went to see the dean. Dean Brown. I remember he was a very friendly old man with a long beard. I told him my predicament, that I wanted to go on to do graduate study but I didn't have any money. Well, again, he said there were jobs there and lots of kids did work in school to pay their way. So I got a job working in the cafeteria. Eventually I got a job in a Presbyterian settlement house, the Martha O'Brien Settlement House over close to Fisk University. Coaching basketball and youth activities. It was one of those ghetto communities, whites. I got my room and my board at the settlement house plus $45 a month in cash. So I was really set up. Before I got this job, one year Jesse Stuart came down, was in school there. Jesse, incidentally, flunked out that year at Vanderbilt. He didn't make it. He later was given an honorary doctorate degree by Vanderbilt. But he was very hard up, too. I was always pretty good at shifting around, keeping my head above water. I'd find something, one way or another, to make it. So I bought Jesse's food that year. Through college we'd been the closest personal friends. He and I had been inseparable. I'd always sort of helped him that way. Because when he came to college he was greener than I was. I was sort of a man of the world. I'd worked for the Southern Bell telephone company and been around a good bit. Jesse had never been anywhere. He was working on the gang once and somebody sent him after a left hand monkey wrench and that kind of thing. So I sort of got a warm feeling for Jesse because he was sort of shoved around a bit. And we were the closest of friends. And we went to Vanderbilt the same way. He later wrote a book in which he talks about Don East. Not Don West, but Don East. Kept him from starving, bought his meal tickets and all that kind of thing at Vanderbilt. There was a boarding house that you could go family style and eat for thirty-five cents a meal. Jesse and I would eat one meal a day and that poor old lady must not have made many pennies on the meals we ate, because we got three in one. That was what we'd do for months. That was the way we lived. One meal a day at this place where you could eat everything you could pile on your plate.
Do you remember a teacher at Vanderbilt named Alva Taylor?
Alva Taylor. He was a great spirit. He was a man that inspired his students to get out into things that were happening. He taught the Christian ethics course. I majored under Alva Taylor. I wrote my thesis under him. My thesis was the result of a study I made, a personal study over in east Kentucky on Quicksand-Troublesome Creek Hell Fer Sartin. Then, the most remote area of the mountains that we could find. I spent three months over there in that place. There was no paved road. No roads, no cafeterias, no motels or anything like that. I rode a horse. I stayed all night somewhere and slept somewhere and ate my meals for the three months with different people. I never paid for a single meal and not for a single night's lodging. It was very strange. I'd never been in that part of the mountain. I sometimes think of this when people talk about the mountain people being unfriendly and suspicious of strangers and all this kind of stuff. Now, I was a mountaineer. I knew about mountain culture and all that kind of thing. And I knew better than to be too prying about what some of the people I stayed with did. Some of them made blockade liquor, you know. As long as you tend to your own business and don't get too inquisitive about theirs, why you're all right. They don't like a reporter. On the tv at Beckeley they wanted me to give a series of discussions on mountain moonshining and I've been doing some of that. I was remembering some of the code of the mountains. It was a very interesting thing. When I was a kid there in north Georgia, for example, my dad never did make liquor at all. My granddaddy, on my daddy's side, was supposed to be one of the best moonshine liquor makers there was in the mountains. He made pure corn. None of this diluted stuff. No potash or lye or anything like that. Real corn. Made his own malt. Sprouting his corn and grinding it up and so on. And my uncle, the one I mentioned that we took back to the mountains to bury after he died down in the low country, he was always making it and he was good. But my dad didn't make it. But nobody would report on a neighbor. If a neighbor was making it, no other neighbor would report him to the officials. I remember one morning my dad took me out. Our house was up on a knoll and we had a big range of mountains, of hollows going up, and he showed me smoke from seven different places going up that morning. You could see it going up through the air. And each one was a still. And he knew the name of every person that was running each still. Numbers of times I remember he was arrested and taken down to the county seat. And my grandpa would have to go his bond and so on. I remember one time they found some kegs of liquor stashed in our fence corner. We used to fence our fields with these rails, you know. And we'd turn our stock outside, on the range, and they'd eat chestnuts and acorns and so on. But this neighbor had been making liquor across the mountain on a branch on our place. He had stored in the fence corner some of his kegs. Now hardly ever did the revenuers get up there because we had a system there in the mountains from Ellajay. See, Ellajay was fifteen miles down the river and our community was on Turkey Creek. And if the revenuers started out from Ellajay we had a community phone. We'd developed a cooperative telephone system. We'd nail the brackets on trees and put up posts and so on. We all had different rings. Ours was a long and a short and a long. Some would be two shorts. Everybody had a different ring. But there was one special ring that was the revenuers ring. And when the revenuers started out from Ellajay, the first one that saw them would ring the revenuers ring. Seven longs was the revenue ring. When that revenue ring sounded everybody was on the line… see, that was fifteen miles away. People would be on the line. Where are they? How are they traveling? By buggy or horseback? There were two roads up the way. (One was by Dyne, one was by Cantecay.) Which way are they coming? By Dyne or by Cantecay? They'd get all the information. When the revenuers got up to our place, everybody was innocent and clean and smiling and welcoming. They'd got their jugs out, their stills out, their barrels out. Hardly ever did they find anything. But once they did get up there and find these kegs in our fence corner and came on down and arrested my dad. I was just a kid. I remember I heard him say to mama "Well, I'm not a bit worried. Your dad will go my bond. And when the time comes, Arthur will come out and take it off of me." It belonged to Arthur Lowen. Now those revenuers knew that that was not my dad's liquor. They knew that he did not make it. But they knew the one sure way of catching the man it belonged to was to take my dad to jail. So they took him. And when the time came, Arthur Lowens went down and said "West had nothing to do with that liquor. He didn't know it was there. I put it there. I take full responsibility." This is the kind of a code of ethics that existed there. No self-respecting bootlegger would let any innocent neighbor suffer because of his doings. And no neighbor would report on another. The most despicable character imaginable would have been a reporter. That came in in the McCarthy period, you know, when we had so many stooges, witnesses and informers.