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Still life a hot topic at Catoctin Mountain State Park

September 27, 1999

StillBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




THURMONT, Md. - Long before the government acquired its land, Catoctin Mountain State Park was the site of a spirited rebellion.

During Prohibition, a rugged band of mountaineers profited and perished in the risky but rewarding business of making whiskey. About three-tenths of a mile from the park's visitors center, the Blue Blazes Still is a memorial of that era.

The cobwebbed contraption that sits idle in the woods today is very different from the one revenuers raided July 31, 1929. The original still was one of the largest commercial operations in the area.

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After a gunfight that left one sheriff's deputy dead, police found more than 25,000 gallons of the cornmeal pulp used to make alcohol. The "mash" was discovered in 13 wood vats that held about 2,000 gallons each.

Blue Blazes is a 50-gallon still assembled from pieces of other confiscated stills, according to park intern Catherine Cesnik. She led a public discussion Sunday about the importance of stills in early settlers' lives.

"Whiskey always has been made up in these hills, as long as it's been habitable," she said. "It was really a form of pride for most people." Recipes and the knowledge of distillation techniques passed among generations.

From the time of the first harvest circa 1734, stills were legal and many farms had them. "It was an important part of commerce for them," said Cesnik. "It condensed all the corn for them."

Heavy loads of corn were costly to transport to market and whiskey was worth more. Farmers made mash - and with it, more money. But in 1791, Congress passed an excise tax on stills to help pay for the Revolutionary War, Cesnick said.

Thus began the "moonshine era." Taxes took the profit out of liquor, so "blockaders" ran their stills in secret, by moonlight. Law enforcement was lax at first- many officers had friends or relatives who ran stills, according to Cesnick.

But when Prohibition began in 1919, illegal booze became more profitable and there was more pressure to root it out. Mountain people banded together and their stills became a form of rebellion.

The area around Catoctin was popular for its strong water supply and proximity to Thurmont. Products labeled "Corn Meal" were shipped by train from the town. Armed men held watch for informers and strung trip lines tied to bells, Cesnik said.

With the end of Prohibition in 1933, stills could no longer compete with large, commercial distilleries. It is now illegal to make mash for whiskey, but the tradition continues, according to Cesnik.

The park had a special permit to operate Blue Blazes and held demonstrations there from 1971 until 1989, she said. Ipecac was used to take away the liquor's intoxicating effects. But the government decided it made a mistake when it issued the permit.

Like the large-scale still before it, Blue Blazes was shut down. It is open to the public during park hours. For information, call 301-271-7574.

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