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Moonshine Festival this weekend

Man embraces family’s bootleg liquor heritage

POSTED: October 19, 2011 4:00 a.m.
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The 44th annual Mountain Moonshine Festival is this weekend. Events will be held Friday, Saturday and Sunday in downtown Dawsonville. For all the information needed to navigate the festival see the special section inside today’s print edition of the Dawson Community News.

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Lee Elrod was at an estate sale three years ago when he stumbled across an early 1940s photo taken atop Amicalola Falls.

An antique collector of sorts, Elrod was intrigued by the image of a man warming his hands over the open flame of a copper liquor still.

"That's a pretty big still," he said. "But it had to be in the winter up on top of that mountain."

While many local residents may shy away from the stories of their fathers, grandfathers and uncles making bootleg liquor in Dawson County, Elrod embraces the sordid moonshine past.

"Some people are embarrassed. And even if you know their families were involved, they say they weren't," Elrod said. "But I'm not like that. Moonshine is our history. It's our heritage."

This weekend, Elrod will join thousands in downtown Dawsonville for the annual Mountain Moonshine Festival, a tribute to those who supported their families by making and selling bootleg liquor.

Now in its 44th year, proceeds from the festival support KARE for Kids, a local nonprofit that provides for Dawson County children in need.

Some may scoff at the irony of a festival that celebrates moonshine's heritage helping children. Calvin Byrd, president of KARE for Kids, said he still gets the phone calls questioning the ethics.

"I just keep telling them this is all for the kids of Dawson County," he said. "Yeah, it's the Moonshine Festival, but that's just a name to draw people in."

One of the more unique fall festivals in north Georgia, the event draws an estimated 100,000 visitors to Dawsonville every year looking for mementos of a bygone era.

It kicks off Saturday morning with a parade of moonshine-era cars. The vehicles then line the town square, surrounded by hundreds of vendors from across the Southeast.

Elrod's moonshine-making lineage lived near Rocky Top Road, just outside of downtown Dawsonville, off what's now called Howser Mill.

"My grandpa's brother, Blumer Johnson, was a big-time moonshiner, him and his five sons," Elrod said. "The still was right outside the back door."

As far as Elrod knows, his great uncle and cousins never got caught by revenuers trying to shut down the illegal liquor trade.

"When his wife would see the federal law coming, she'd fire a shotgun once or twice in the air for warning," he said. "That means if they had anything illegal, it was time to run like hell."

According to Elrod, Blumer Johnson later became a preacher and let his past go.

But Elrod said he can't - and won't - let go of this piece of his family's history.

Making moonshine, Elrod said, "was just a way of life, a way to get by is all it was."

This year's festival is set for 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

And while remnants of Dawsonville's moonshine days, including a working still on the town square, will be apparent, Byrd said there is one item visitors won't find.

"There's no moonshine," he said.

 

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