The year was 1916. Flooding along the Etowah River had been merciless that year, from the Etowah Valley to Rome, where the Etowah meets the Oostanaula to form the Coosa. For one Cherokee County farmer, John Henry Hardin, it could have spelled disaster. Descended from French Huguenots, as a young man he’d worked in a gold mine in the county, until it flooded. Unable to read or write, Hardin was smart enough to realize that mining was too risky, and he turned to farming. A tireless worker, he was successful as a farmer, and added lands until, by 1916, he was one of the largest owners of farmland in the state. The construction of Allatoona Lake to control flooding in 1946 was still 30 years away. So, when flooding caused damage to large tracts of his corn crop, Hardin was in trouble.
Because of the water damage, he was unable to sell his corn, or use it for animal feed, and he realized he wouldn’t be able to pay the taxes and mortgage on his land, and the bill for the seed he borrowed on credit. He was about to lose it all. He employed a great many locals to work his farmland, and it was a farmhand who suggested the solution. The water damage had left his corn crop good for just one thing; it could still be used to make corn liquor. Hardin was an honest man, who taught Sunday School at Sixes United Methodist Church, and never had considered anything of the sort. Faced with large quantities of corn, he converted it to moonshine and saved his business.
Hardin had the labor force, and he had a lot of corn that only could be used to make mash. All he needed was a market to sell the liquor, once it was made, and nearby cities of Rome, Dalton and Atlanta proved to be ready outlets to sell alcohol, minus the excise taxes.
So, the 51-year-old man, born in Ophir (just outside of modern day Ball Ground) found himself in the business of making corn liquor. He was not a bootlegger; if you wanted his product, you came up and got it … no delivery available. But, an honest man and a hard worker are unusual in such an enterprise, and, at his peak, he was making hundreds of thousands of gallons, employing close to 100 locals and operating 20 stills at a time. Two bushels of corn meal and 60 pounds of sugar created 6 gallons of whiskey. To make more than 100,000 gallons a year, it must’ve been quite the operation. Near Stamp Creek, he had a colony of families that did nothing but make liquor, until revenuers came and broke up the camp. It’s said that so much mash went into the nearby creeks when they broke up the stills that local livestock refused to drink from them.
Prohibition (1920-1933) boosted demand; thereafter followed the Great Depression, and folks did whatever they could think of to earn a living and feed their families. Local authorities ignored Hardin. In fact, while he was incarcerated in the Bartow County Jail, they allowed him to bring adding machines and typewriters into the cell to continue running his business, as it meant that much to the local economy. But, as the scale of his operation eventually sent his product well across state lines, the federal and state authorities were less understanding.
Dubbed the Moonshine King of Georgia, he was caught and convicted multiple times, through the efforts of dedicated men like Duff Floyd, and spent time in the Atlanta Penitentiary. It was there that he learned to read and write, and received new ideas on how to improve the quality of his product and the covertness of his operation. He never stopped production, running his operation even while incarcerated, until his death in 1943. The fines and back taxes assessed from his convictions left him penniless, and much of what were his land holdings today lie underneath Allatoona Lake. The 1927 trial file has photos of his stills, which employed all sorts of technical innovations, from steam boilers to generate consistent heat without scorching, to the addition of sugar to the corn mash to boost production rates. (To view Hardin’s case file, visit https://catalog.archives.gov/id/720686.)
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents are as smart and persistent as moonshiners, and men like Floyd made a 30-year career out of catching men like Hardin. (Theirs is an interesting story as well, but that’s for another time.) The tradition of illegal distilleries runs deep in Cherokee County, with the ATF catching people well into the 1950s and ’60s. If you walk the Boling Park trails behind Cherokee High School today, you’ll find almost a dozen places marked with “site of moonshine still” or “remnants of moonshine still,” back among the logging trails — always in a hollow, always along a water source, always deep in the woods.
We forget just how hard it was to eke out a living in that time. In 1916, Hardin was trying to save his family farm. In the ’20s, he was employing people in a locality that didn’t yet have the carpet and textile mills, and whose small farms couldn’t produce cash crops needed to pay the taxes on those farms. In the ’30s, he was helping folks brought to their knees during the Depression find the means to feed their families. We forget that many of the judges and lawyers in Atlanta that sent him to prison bought and drank his product when the workday was over.
Hardin lies buried in the Sixes United Methodist Church Cemetery, the church he attended and where he sang in the choir. As the Clancy Brothers sing in “The Moonshiner”:
“Bless all moonshiners, and bless all moonshine, for their breath smells as sweet as the dew on the vine.”
– The Wanderer has been a resident of Cherokee County for nearly 20 years, and constantly is learning about his community on daily walks, which totaled a little more than 1,800 miles in 2021. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.