Word for Word: The notorious life of moonshiner Popcorn Sutton

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton came from a long line of moonshiners. Sick and facing 18 months in prison, he killed himself two weeks ago. A book about him was finished the day he died.

Special to the Times

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton came from a long line of moonshiners. Sick and facing 18 months in prison, he killed himself two weeks ago. A book about him was finished the day he died.

One of the country's last and most notorious moonshiners, Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton killed himself March 16 rather than go to jail. In 40 years of running moonshine in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, he had been arrested a number of times, most recently in 2008 with 800 gallons of moonshine and a few firearms. Battling cancer and facing an 18-month prison term, he was found dead in his Ford Fairlane. Sutton, 62, had kept a white oak casket in his bedroom. Inside it contained a set of plastic flowers, and a shovel to dig the grave. His life is explored in a new book self-published by his daughter, Sky Sutton, of Northampton, Mass. She finished the book the day her father died. Here is an excerpt:

Popcorn Sutton's moonshining abilities didn't spontaneously appear. He is the product of generations of Suttons all working in a long line to protect and preserve the knowledge of the stills. The Sutton family name reaches back four centuries into American history.

I asked family if I were to run a still what generation would I be to do it. The fourth? Sixth? Tenth?

"All of 'em," I'm told before I've finished asking the question. I couldn't help but laugh. The blood of that many moonshiners running through my veins was a wild idea I couldn't help but be thrilled by. Who were they? Where did they come from? If I couldn't see their faces I could at least discover the names.

Popcorn is proud of his family connection to the shine. Even when the law got involved. In the late 1920s my great-grandfather, ignorant of or ignoring the laws of the land, got himself thrown in the can. Popcorn grins when he tells the story:

"My Grand Daddy, little Mitch Sutton, sold a man a case of likker on the credit. It went on and on and the man wouldn't pay Grand Daddy for the likker so Grand Daddy thought the debt was an honest debt. He went to the Waynesville Haywood County Courthouse and lawed the man for the debt. It went to court and the court made the man pay Grand Daddy for the likker and give Grand Daddy 30 days in jail for selling the likker to the other man. They put him in jail which was on the ground floor instead of the top story of the courthouse like the jail is now. Grand Daddy stayed 3 days in jail, then broke out and went home. So I guess the law felt sorry for him because he had small children and never went to bring him back."

Popcorn is quick to point out Little Mitch had a civic minded side: "My grand daddy helped build the first Baptist church that was built on Hemphill. He made likker all his life. I've been told this to be the truth, too. He took the likker and sold it and took the money and helped buy the materials to build the first Baptist church on Hemphill that was ever built."

Popcorn is also proud of his father, Vader: "He worked at Unagusta and he sold a bunch of likker to the guys he worked with. Carried it in his dinner bucket. A half-gallon jar will fit right in a dinner bucket. He'd deliver from car to car in his dinner bucket. He'd take 10 jars at a time in his old jeep, threw rags over them to cover it up."

In addition to working at the Unagusta furniture factory, Vader worked his land. He kept honey bees, coaxed tomatoes and tobacco to grow from the stony ground and moved stiff-legged from a life-time of walking behind the plow. My favorite story of Vader is from his childhood. When Vader and his siblings would set out on the five-mile walk to school, it was very early in the morning and still cold. To warm their bare feet they'd shoo cows from their sleeping spots to stand on the bovine-warmed ground. In my school days I thought it was hard keeping warm for 20 minutes standing at the bus stop!

As I've explored the world of moonshining I've come to feel there is a difference between liquor and likker. Liquor is mass produced in factories, sold in stores and served at bars. Likker is hand-crafted, procured by word-of-mouth and shared with few. Likker, more commonly known as moonshine, is a home brewed liquor containing at least corn, sugar, yeast, malt, and water. It's processed in a furnace-heated still, sold in "shot houses," "nip joints" or from the back of cars. It has an average proof of 100 (50% alcohol). Moonshine is — unlike any OTC booze and its production — a fascinating process. Its history, people and product are the stuff of legends. It conjures up images of wild car chases and blazing rifles, jingling jars and secret stashes, but the history of shine is less about romance and more about survival in a place with precious little farm land, mostly rocky and steep. Families did what they had to. Like today's often vilified Afghani opium farmers growing the crop that will put the most food on their family's table, Appalachian moonshiners were making the most of the resources at their disposal when they ignored the government's heavy handed restrictions to their product. Never underestimate the power of poverty. A parent will do anything to keep young ones fed, clothed and sheltered.

Moonshine has moved from being a homespun industry to a statement of rebellion to a dying art, all the while remaining a product of tradition and pride. Today the shine is a complex symbol of a "simpler time" that was never simple.

Sky Sutton is a historian living in New England. She's often to be found climbing Chapel's Falls in the Berkshires or kicking up mud in the Great Meadows of the Pioneer Valley searching for things abandoned, lost and forgotten. To order a copy of "Daddy Moonshine," e-mail asneeded@skysutton.com.

Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines and other sources. Text may be edited for space but the original spelling, grammar and punctuation are unchanged.

Word for Word: The notorious life of moonshiner Popcorn Sutton 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 4:31am]

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