Retired revenuer tells of chasing moonshiners at Wayne Museum
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on October 18, 2009 2:00 AM
Retired Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms "revenuer" George "Bob" Powell, center, of Wilkesboro, and Marvin E. Underwood, right, originally of Smithfield, who said the "revenuers never caught him when he was running moonshine many years ago, look at a replica of a still at the Wayne County Museum. Powell spoke at the museum Friday night about his days as a "revenuer."
Two former enemies turned friends Friday night at the Wayne County Museum, as a retired revenuer shook hands and swapped stories with an out-of-business moonshiner.
George Robert Powell Sr., retired Wilkesboro revenue agent and author of "Moonshiners, Fast Cars and Revenuers: Moments from My Life in Law Enforcement," was the guest speaker at the museum's ongoing moonshine exhibit.
And he had a few stories to tell.
"It's been a long and varied career. Some of the stories are in the book. Some I couldn't tell," Powell said to the audience of about 40 people.
As a young agent working out of Wilmington, he and two other officers were patrolling the Cape Fear River, looking for any signs of trouble. It didn't take long for them to discover a moonshiner's boat, tied up near a swamp. After tracking down the nearby still, the revenue agents waited in the darkness until they began to hear noises.
"There were no stars, no moon, no nothing, but you could hear the still," Powell said.
Powell and the other agents waited until the moonshiners came back for their boat and sailed it past where the officers were hiding. After seeing the boat loaded down with burlap bags full of illegal whiskey, one agent jumped into the boat and grabbed one of the startled moonshiners.
"That guy screamed at the top of his lungs," Powell said. "The guy said, 'Great God, I thought you was a bear!'"
Some of Powell's still-busting trips turned dangerous, and true to the legends, involved vehicle chases. But one of the most dangerous cases involved an old, beat-up pickup truck.
The revenue agents waited for several days in the forest near a still, hoping the moonshiners would return for their 'shine. The raid started smoothly when the officers confronted the whiskey-makers after they came back to check the still, but the men quickly attempted to escape in their truck.
Powell and his partner, however, weren't about to give up the chase.
"We just grabbed ahold of the bed and jumped in," he said.
The moonshiners drove through the woods, hoping to shake Powell and the other agent out of the truck bed. The driver swerved through stands of trees, but one officer fired a shot through the window, making him stop the vehicle and run away on foot.
The night ended in a victory for the revenuers when Powell threw a flashlight at the fleeing man, and missed his target. The flashlight bounced in front of the soon-to-be-arrested moonshiner, who mistakenly froze in his tracks.
"He saw the light and thought it was somebody coming the other way to catch him," Powell said.
The danger, though, wasn't a big concern for the agents, even in the rare instance that the moonshiners had weapons. It was just the revenuers' job, Powell said.
"But I swore I would never jump into the back of another truck," he added.
Johnston County legend Marvin Underwood, now living in Sampson County and long retired from the illegal whiskey business, donated many of the moonshine items currently on display at the museum. He attended the program and spoke with Powell about their former lives.
The retired revenuer was sure Underwood wasn't one of the moonshiners he caught, however.
"Gosh no, he was too fast for me," Powell said.
Underwood also gave the museum a written account of his side of the moonshine race. He began running moonshine when he was 14 years old, and by selling it at only $3 for a half pint, he was quickly able to buy his own car -- a 1953 Ford Crestliner.
But making moonshine was a fairly common practice in rural North Carolina in those days, he said.
"Everybody that made liquor weren't bad people. Some of them had to do it out of necessity," Underwood said.
And even infamous North Carolina moonshiner Junior Johnson is not that bad, Powell said.
"I wholeheartedly admit he's made something of himself. Wasn't as fast as Mr. Underwood, though," he joked.
The Taverns, Saloons and Moonshine Madness exhibit will be on display at the Wayne County Museum until Dec. 23. Historian and author Frank Stephenson will also speak about moonshine on a date to be announced in November.