The word moonshine brings to mind images of bearded hillbillies, stoking the fires of a primitive conglomeration of tanks, pipes and pots all well hidden in a holler. My friend, Red Squirrel, grew up in the mountains and has often entertained me with stories of his grandfather’s still in the Shenandoah Mountains. Red told me that as a young boy it was his job to run like the devil down to the holler by the creek and fire up the still when word came that the revenuers were in the area. Red said his grandfather told him to get it cooking so it makes lots of smoke. I would have thought that making smoke that would attract the revenuers would be the last thing you would want to do if you were operating an illegal still. When I questioned it, Red explained that he was sent to fire up the decoy still which the revenuers then quickly found and broke up. The smoke from the decoy helped to hide the smell of the smoke from the still in the corn crib. The revenuers and the Sheriff then took granddaddy off to jail for a few hours. Meanwhile, the main still that was well hidden in the corn crib, remained untouched. Red said his granddaddy never sold the moonshine he made it for himself and his friends.
While it is true there were many moonshiner’s stills hidden in the mountains, Bobby Watkins says there were many more in populated areas. Watkins has spent a great deal of his career tracking down, chasing and catching moon-shiners in the state of Virginia. Watkins is a retired revenuer who chased bootleggers for 30 years.
Although four generations of Watkins family on his mother’s side were from Essex County, he was born at home in Warsaw, Virginia on August 22, 1933. His great grandfather’s name is on the Civil War monument located on Prince Street in Tappahannock. His father’s people are from King and Queen County. Before that they came from England. In fact, Watkins has found there was a member of Captain John Smith’s crew who may possibly have been his kin. A Watkins is said to have killed the first Indian at the mouth of Hoskins creek when the Smith party came up the river.
After graduating from Tappahannock High School, Watkins entered the U.S. Army and served with the Army Engineers in Japan during the Korean War. After he left the military, Watkins started his college career as an art major at the Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) which is now VCU. He studied to be a commercial artist. He later earned a degree in Law Enforcement. Watkins worked, at first part-time then after college full-time, for the Virginia ABC Board. He worked in the store division until there was an opening with the law enforcement division.
Watkins has many interesting stories about his career catching bootleggers. One that amazed me was the time when Watkins was working undercover on a huckster truck selling watermelons throughout the state of Virginia. He would stop in a town and sell watermelons while observing what was going on. After a while, the locals got used to him and let their guard down. Watkins recalls one time he made sixty buys of alcoholic beverages on one street in Alexandria. He did not arrest the sellers at that time. Later, they would have a big round up and arrest the very surprised bootleggers.
Watkins said that in the mid-seventies he raided one hundred and ten establishments in three days in eight different counties. Unlike the stills generally found in the mountains, the stills Watkins busted in the Middle Peninsula Northern Neck area were behind barns, in basements, in houses, under chicken coops and in many places not far from populated areas. He said they were filthy and he often found dead rodents, bats or squirrels floating in the mash boxes.
During Watkins’s career, moonshiner stills having a two to four thousand gallon mash capacity were quite common. Some had a capacity of ten thousand gallons of mash. The yield in actual moonshine was 10%. If you had a four thousand gallon mash capacity your yield would be four hundred gallons of moonshine. The moonshine was stored in Mason jars. Present day moonshiners use plastic jugs. One of the jobs Watkins and his fellow agents had when they raided a still was to not only break up the still and destroy the actual moonshine, but to also break up the stock of empty mason jars. Often there would be hundreds of Mason jars stored and ready to be filled with moonshine.
Watkins told me, “In the Middle Peninsula Northern Neck area there were what are called Nip joints. Some of them sold moonshine, but most of them went to the ABC store and bought eight pints at a time because that was all you could haul at that time. Then after hours, they would sell it. At that time they would pay $4.00 for a pint and sell it for $6.00.”
Watkins has been shot on more than one occasion and been involved in car crashes while chasing bootleggers.
He was once involved in a shootout in a frequently robbed ABC store on Broad Street in Richmond. The robber came in, sensed something was wrong when he did not recognize the clerk and immediately started shooting. Fortunately, no one was injured and Watkins eventually caught the shooter.
Watkins recalls a team of what the Rappahannock Indians who were brothers. One of the brothers was a very fast runner. The two brothers had set up a still on the head of a mill pond that was only accessible by boat. When they were working the still, they would fill their boat up with water so it appeared to be just an old sunken boat. Watkins said, “We raided the still and the fast brother took off with me chasing him. Then I looked back at the still and there was the other brother, who wasn’t even running. I went back and grabbed him and I asked why he didn’t run? He said, ‘I can’t.’ I asked him why he couldn’t run. He said ‘I only have one leg.’ From then on whenever we raided that still I told the boys ‘Woody is mine’.”
I asked Watkins if he ever took a drink of that moonshine. With a grin and a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Sure, how do you think I know what I am looking for?” Watkins has a contagious charm and is a wonderful story teller. I sat with him while I listened to him tell story after fascinating story of his exploits as a revenuer.
Watkins has been in many high speed car chases. On one Thanksgiving morning Bobby Watkins and his partner spotted a car they knew was loaded with moonshine. A high speed chase ensued. Suddenly the revenuers hit a newly tarred section of road and went off the road into the trees. Both Watkins and his partner, who was driving, were thrown out of the car. His partner was seriously injured and remained on the critical list for quite a while. A short time later Watkins caught the guy they were chasing that day. The bootlegger had been driving a 1958 Buick with the back seat removed and was able to haul 28 cases of moonshine. After he was arrested the bootlegger told Watkins that he knew he couldn’t out run the revenuers so he was about to pull over and wait for them. He said if he had know they were in a crash he would have come back to help them. Watkins believes he would have helped them if he knew they had been in a crash. He said “that is how it was. The moonshiners believe they had a right to make whiskey and they were going to do it again, even after they were arrested. They knew the revenuers had to do their job. There were no hard feelings.” In fact, Watkins has run into several of people over the years that he had arrested years ago. One very respectable woman, he had arrested years before, didn’t quite remember how she knew him. When she asked repeatedly, Watkins said, “Madame, you don’t want to know.”
After 30 years as a revenuer Watkins retired in 1991. His wife Barbara said he retired for about two hours. Watkins, who says he “thrives on stress”, worked part-time as a fish surveyor for the National Marine Fishery Service. His job was to document what kind of fish, their weight and quantities that were being caught in the area. Watkins retired from that job after 22 years. He also has worked part-time as a bailiff in the Essex County Sheriff’s Department for the last 10 years.
When he was younger Watkins was an avid tennis player and played all over the state of Virginia. A damaged Achilles tendon ended his tennis playing. In his leisure time, Watkins does a lot of gardening with his wife Barbara. It is evident in their garden that Bobby Watkin’s early interest in art still lingers in his creative and artistic landscaping. The Watkins enjoy their various collectibles including a collection of marbles. One of his projects has been to develop a goldfish pond in the yard in which several large goldfish come to the surface on a signal from Watkins. The Watkins home is filled with an array of eclectic treasures, every one of which has a story and a meaning for Bobby and Barbara Watkins. Bobby Watkins has enough fascinating stories to fill a book, in fact he has done just that in a soon to be published book entitled: Not Necessarily in Them Thar Hills.