By DUNCAN ADAMS
ROANOKE, Va. (AP) —
Cecil Love sat that June morning on an overturned five-gallon bucket near his moonshine still and said a prayer.
“I asked the Lord if what I was doing was wrong,” Love recalled. “I didn’t know He would answer so quickly.”
Suddenly, two agents from Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control burst from covering foliage with guns drawn. They ordered Love to put up his hands.
The raid occurred June 13, 2011. The still was within sight of the Love family’s old homeplace near Briar Mountain in Franklin County. Love was 83 years old.
He had been involved since his teens in the county’s infamous moonshine trade. But this was his first bust.
Love turned 85 this month. Two books recently published about moonshining in Franklin County each devoted a chapter to him.
Longtime newspaperman Morris Stephenson’s book, “A Night of Makin’ Likker — Plus Other Stories From the Moonshine Capital of the World,” described Love as the county’s “now undisputed ‘King of the Moonshiners.”’
Stephenson stops for breakfast at the Dairy Queen west of Rocky Mount when he spots Love’s pickup out front. Stephenson said Love’s stories provide a window into the often hardscrabble lives of the people who settled decades ago in the county’s mountains and hollows.
“We don’t even talk about moonshine much anymore,” Stephenson said. “When Cecil starts talking, I just shut up. I’m like a sponge. When he passes on, when he goes, that is going to be a wealth of information that can’t be tapped anymore.”
Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College, shared similar thoughts.
“We’re losing that generation altogether, and it’s good that Cecil is getting some recognition as a tradition bearer in his community,” Moore said.
Cecil Junior Love was one of 11 children born to Emmett and Ellen Love. The large family crowded into a small frame house.
“Everybody built in the hollows where they could get water from the springs,” Love said. “We lived in the woods. We knew how to survive.”
Love said there were about 30 households within a 10-mile radius.
“There’s none of them people left — people I hunted squirrels with, swung on grapevines with,” he said.
Neighbors helped neighbors, he said, shucking corn, thrashing wheat, hauling in firewood and water.
Emmett Love did a little farming. And he made moonshine with the clear mountain water.
“He didn’t want us in it,” Love recalled. “He just said it was trouble.”
But money beckoned. Cleaning barns or spreading fertilizer by hand for 50 cents a day could not compete with the payoff of manufacturing white lightning. Neither could toiling in a furniture factory.
Love’s formal education ended after the seventh grade at Briar Mountain School.
“I didn’t get well educated, but I knew how to survive,” he said.
Love said he was about 12 years old when a notorious moonshiner who had mired his truck in a mudhole asked Cecil and older brother Walter to help tote some Mason jars and 100-pound bags of sugar to the man’s still.
Afterward, the moonshiner handed Emmett Love a hundred-dollar bill.
“Me and Walter had never seen anything like that and that changed our attitude in life to getting into the whiskey business,” Love said.
His liquor career paused when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Love saw combat during the Korean War and was awarded a Purple Heart after being shot in the right leg by an enemy soldier.
After his homecoming, Love returned to moonshining. He and two of his brothers also ran a sawmill.
Somehow, the law never snared Love, who made liquor and hauled it, too. He said he never bribed revenuers.
“I got accused of it but I never done it,” he said. “Them days you had to keep your eyes open. Some people went to sleep on the job.”
Love said he scrutinized how agents walked, whether slew-footed or pigeon-toed. He noted which cigarette brands they smoked. He stayed alert around still sites for telltale footprints and cigarette butts to see whether agents had staked them out.
Then came the bust in June 2011. Love said he was trying to make the best moonshine the county had ever produced. He said he prayed prematurely that morning.
“I wish I’d have waited until that afternoon. I would have at least gotten a jar of it,” he said.
Love still feels miffed about ABC agents Bev Whitmer and Mark Scott drawing their guns.
“They could have come up and treated me like a gentleman,” he said.
But Chris Goodman, deputy director of field operations for the ABC’s bureau of law enforcement, said the agents acted appropriately.
“Where they were entering the still site there was heavy foliage and a ravine,” Goodman said.
He said the agents could not tell how many people were working the still or whether anyone was armed. He said raids often turn up loaded guns on site.
Ultimately, Love pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of distilling apparatus without a permit. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail, suspended, and fined $250.
Stephenson said Love’s court case provided the material he needed for his book’s final chapter — “The Last Hurrah.”
He stands by describing Love as King of the Moonshiners.
“Let me put it this way: I haven’t been getting any pushback about giving him that title,” Stephenson said.
Duncan Adams writes for The Roanoke Times.