Moonshiners In Rim Country


In an Arizona Highways article titled “Whiskey Making in Arizona,” it’s reported there were 30 to 40 stills in the area. Making moonshine was a fairly common practice in America during Prohibition. The still pictured above is on display in Kentucky.

In an Arizona Highways article titled “Whiskey Making in Arizona,” it’s reported there were 30 to 40 stills in the area. Making moonshine was a fairly common practice in America during Prohibition. The still pictured above is on display in Kentucky.

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The Payson area was known for its moonshine back in the day. The moonshine was called “Payson Dew” and it had a good reputation that went far beyond the region. Here’s a look at this moonshine and the people behind it.

While the federal government’s Prohibition began in 1920, Arizona enacted a ban in 1915, one of many states to do so. The Payson area was still very remote and the hills and forest provided many hiding places for equipment. Of course, the townsfolk didn’t care for the “prohis” (law enforcement), at least according to this story from the book “Rim Country History.”

“A story in Star Valley has been told and retold, and is probably true, that when the Prohis reached that area the people would tie bells onto burros that seemed to congregate in the little valley. They would then scatter the burros in all directions. The ringing of the bells was ample notice to the bootleggers to get ready for the Prohis.”

A lot of area folks made their own whiskey and “Rim Country History” has a lot of stories of them. But how many people really got busted for it? Let’s take a look at a couple newspaper clips regarding busts.

photo

Wikimedia Commons photo by Brian Stansberry

In an Arizona Highways article titled “Whiskey Making in Arizona,” it’s reported there were 30 to 40 stills in the area. Making moonshine was a fairly common practice in America during Prohibition. The still pictured above is on display in Kentucky.

The Sept. 2, 1922 Arizona Republican carried news of 41 arrests that had been made around the state. Three names from Payson were listed: W.W. Gibson and James Moreland for possession and A.J. Franklin as a “retail liquor dealer.” W.W. Gibson likely refers to Wash Gibson who had a place in Round Valley. Franklin ran the local pool hall, also sometimes called “the dive.” This is referenced in “Rim Country History” and a 1925 business directory also lists Franklin.

Prohibition ended in 1933, but it did not stop people in the region from making moonshine. The Dec. 7, 1934 Winslow Mail carried news of a big bust:

“Huge Still Raided Near Payson Nets Three Operators

“Former Local Man Was Once Connected With It, Officers Say

“What federal and state officers declared to be the largest and most modernly equipped still operating in Arizona was captured last Saturday night near Payson, and three of its alleged operators were placed under arrest. One of the men implicated a former well known bootlegger as one of the partners, but this man already is serving time in the penitentiary so no action will be taken against him, the officers said.

“Swooping down on the still, which had a capacity of 1,000 gallons a month, the federal, state and county officers found it in operation with the three men in attendance. They gave their names as Henry McKee, Buck McFarland, and Denver Mathews. All three are known in Winslow.

“The raiding officers said that they had known of the still for some time but had never been able to locate it. They said that much of the output was sold to Holbrook, Winslow and Flagstaff, and that the remainder found its way into Globe and the Salt River Valley.”

Henry McKee was born in Georgia in 1883. He eventually came westward, becoming a moonshine maker. According to the “Haught Family History” by Linda Haught Ortega, “he got thrown in prison in Georgia. Then he came on to Arkansas and Missouri. Then he got word that Green Valley Sam Haught needed somebody to make whiskey for him. He came out and made whiskey for the Haughts.”

McKee’s daughter Susie married Alfred Haught, and amongst their children is the aforementioned former Gila County Recorder, Linda Haught Ortega. Information on McFarland and Mathews has not been located at this time.

There were a number of others involved in bootlegging in the area. There was a still where the Chaparral Pines subdivision is now located. Moonshine was also made out in See Canyon by the Kiser family. The Kisers were originally from Kentucky and bought Ernest Sweat’s place near See Canyon. Stills were plentiful in the region. An Arizona Highways article titled “Whiskey Making in Arizona” quoted Vernon Haught as saying that there were 30 to 40 stills in the area. It’s important to understand that moonshine during Prohibition was a fairly common thing.

There are still plenty of stories regarding Payson area moonshine left to be told. If you know of any, please e-mail timothy@zanegrey.net.

Comments

Pat Randall 1 year, 2 months ago

I was told by my dad that my grandfather, Billy Hilligass, his father in-law was the best moonshine maker in the area. People came from California to buy it and take it home. He owned a store at the time so no one questioned why he bought so much sugar and grain.
Grandpa also owned the 16 to 1 saloon for awhile.

Ola Wilbanks owned the first legal liquor license in Payson. A grand son in-law of Olas said Stan Brown may have it.

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