Twin Beeches -- an Illinois Love Story
Author: paul schoaff

Chapter 25
Howie's Ancestral Legacy


HOWIE’S ANCESTORS AND THEIR SKILLS:  He thought all his neighbors knew he had a still under his barn and had been nice enough to keep quiet about it.  Howard's great-grandfather owned the land, the mine and the still when Howard ran barefoot over it, just a boy, and had shown him all the tricks of making a fine squeeze, back when they used dried hickory and oak blocks for the fire to adjust the heat as needed and keep down the smoke.   Great granddad took a fancy to little Howard, his “onliest great grandbaby”. 


When he was over ninety and had gone blind, he set on the porch in his rocker, he told Howard of his days as a child, when they first came to the Illinois wilderness.  It was full of wild hogs ready and able to eat you if given a chance – certainly many a small child who wandered off into the woods never returned.  Some blamed the Black Hawks, some said it was witches; some were in favor of gypsies, even though they didn't come on the scene for another 20 years.  One of the early travelers said he feared greatly for the lives of the children on the prairie, for as soon as they stepped off the porch of their simple house, they stepped into an ocean of grass without any landmarks, and filled with wild animals. 


There was much game and wild fruit on the Illinois bluffs. In places the brambles were so thick you had to go miles around to get to Frank Fackler, the Virginia-born blacksmith up at Woodland, or the Illinois River landing at the Bluffs.  Machete work built the first roads.  Fur trapping, in a small way, continues to this day.  Every man and woman for miles around drank whiskey every day to prevent disease and keep away the shadows at night.  Even preachers kept their jugs under the seat of their buggy when they made it to Devil’s Ridge on their 'Circuit'.   When you met a stranger, or a new neighbor for the first time, you exchanged a pull on each other's jug and then exchanged news or made plans for building the new cabin or barn, with everyone getting together to help.  Great-grandfather made it sound like a paradise, as perhaps, in some ways, it was.  In other ways, often dealing with medical care, it was not.  Other reasons for whiskey, to deaden pain, lighten sorrow and celebrate life.


An ancestor of Howie's, back in the early 1700's, had obtained passage from Southwest England by agreeing to Indentured Servitude to a weaver in Western Virginia for a period of 7 years.  His sons went up and down the Appalachian valleys and worked their way over to the area of Virginia now become West Virginia.  The sons in their large families stayed or went as their notion moved them, and when the Civil War began, fought each other so  they wouldn't be thrown into jail, or called 'Coward'.  Some had gone to Kentucky, where they signed up for the Union.  When the war ended, their choice was not popular in their hometowns and a move to Illinois was in order.


  So, they brought the still along from Kentucky, where it had been the only way to convert their corn crop to a salable product they could carry down to the river to trade for whatever the women thought they needed for the whole year.  The cycle repeated. Every year – a man spent his winter cutting timber and pulling and sliding it down the mountain or across the flats to the river. He slowly collected the excess 'squeeze' from the still and barreled it in cooper-made oak casks. His woman and their children made quilts from old cloth scraps and made preserves from the wild and domestic fruit they had around.  Most of the still-men consumed some of their own product, but a few did not, having harkened to the call of the Great Awakening Evangelists on the frontier. 


The fruit trees on the farm produced apples and cherries and plums by the bushel. Those precious trees were raised from twigs brought up the Cumberland and down into the canebrakes of the Kentucky River flats and creeks and back up into the hills again where they would be safe from the floods and out of the way of any who might seek to harm them.  The girls wove baskets, big and small, and, as the annual trip drew close, the women carved meat from the smokehouse to make meals for a week or 10 days.    Men took down pelts from the stretcher boards and from the sides of buildings and lashed them together.  They gently moved whiskey in barrels from the sheds down the mountain to the river in small heavy wagons drawn by a team of oxen.  For some jobs, even the little boys and girls were able to “Gee” and “Haw” the huge docile beasts; for this job, moving the whiskey down the mountain to the raft, only the best men available were allowed to put hands to the reins.


The young men lashed logs together to form large rafts, loaded with all the goods, and the whole flotilla of six or eight rafts left thereafter for downriver cities nearer the Ohio River. Some few even went so far as New Orleans or Vicksburg, returning by walking back to Kentucky on the ‘Natchez Trace’.   Normally, every year, only the men went on the selling and buying excursion, and returned with merchandise, such as fancy yard goods for clothing, things not made up in the hills. 


As Illinois military lands opened up in the 1820's and 30's , whole families would come down the river, with everything they owned of value on their backs and in crude boxes, and after selling all the trade goods and logs, continue by steam boat or, later, railroad, out to the 'frontier' of Illinois.   Men began the wholesale cutting and clearing of the groves of trees, only the start of the hard work of making a farm there, but here they could enjoy more land with clear title at lower cost, with corn crops two or three times as big for the same amount of work.  Wheat, oats, sorghum, orchards all grew better, yielded more, and the winters not much colder, either. Only later, when the steel plow was invented and perfected, was the prairie sod broken and the enormous flat fertile fields we see today put into production. 


 In river bottoms, levees were needed, followed by years of clearing brush and deadwood to get the ground clear enough to plow.  In swampy areas, like parts of Mason County, enormous drainage ditches finally were finished in the 1930’s.  Some land was so sandy it wouldn’t retain rain well enough to raise crops, so, even though there was plenty of rain, deep ‘artesian’ wells were drilled to provide water for irrigation from gangs of enormous sprinklers on wheels, rotating around in a circle.


The Hawkins clan, when they arrived on the scene, again sought out the relative shelter of the broken hilly land between the river bottom and the seas of prairie grass a few hundred feet above.  They encountered a few natives hiding in the wooded land, unwilling to be pushed any farther west.  This may well be the source of the story of Hawkins blood and Kickapoo Warrior blood commingled ‘way back when’. 


Howard didn't know all of these things about his family history, but he knew whoever and wherever his ancestors had been, they had never been rich and they had never been unused to hard work and uncertainty.  And, of course, they were never without the solace of the fine 'sippin' whiskey' his great grandfather and grandfather taught him to distill.  If you could raise corn, whiskey was the best use of it.... People never expected much from the Hawkins’ men, and they were rarely disappointed.  Could be they didn’t know them very well.


 Hawkins’ men were hard to find when someone wanted to fight a war, but they could always be found when a neighbor needed help.  Somehow, like the Levite tribe of Israel, folks looked to the oldest Hawkins to lead the services in their old white church, way up the holler on Devil’s Ridge.


Stills are not the most complicated pieces of equipment in the pantheon of chemical production devices.   Cracked corn or ground meal corn is soaked in clean water, with some sugar added to improve the yield.   The 'mash' ferments, gaining higher and higher alcohol content.  The heat is then raised to the point where alcohol boils off the mash, leaving the sludge behind.  The alcohol vapor is condensed in a chiller arrangement of many different kinds, all with the purpose of producing a high percentage alcohol mixture into a jug or barrel. 


Variations in the mix of grain, the materials of the still and condenser, the wood used for the barrels the heat applied, the temperature of the mash, the number of times the product is reboiled to purify it, a variety of additives, will make variations in the quality and taste of the finished product, but many sippers are content with a potent, tasteless 180 proof product with the property of hitting your blood vessels from the stomach so quickly as to be almost as quick as a shot of heroin or snort of cocaine.  


Not to belabor the point, Howard believed he had every right to produce whiskey in his family still, a right not unlike ones enjoyed by Native Americans along the Northwest Coast who are given permission to kill a whale every year.  He also believed the government had no right whatsoever to prevent him from earning a living.   He took no stock in the parties.  They were just different names for the same criminal gangs.  Only someone who came down your road and looked you in the eye was worth voting for.  Populist might have been the closest you could describe his politics, though, had he taken the test, he would have found himself in Libertarian company.


Perhaps, though, his activities weren't as well known as he thought.  He had only been caught one time, when, in Rushville, he sold a pint bottle to a fraternity boy from ISU who had crashed on the way back to Jacksonville – the kid ratted him out to the Trooper, and he was brought up on charges.  No one came to the farm, and when he showed up in old Judge Knowles' court, the charges were dropped because “the chain of custody” was tainted.  The bottle arrived in Judge Knowles' courtroom with no more than a tablespoon of liquid left in it.  Curious, the Judge poured out the remainder into his coffee cup and tossed it down.


“Case dismissed for lack of evidence.” Said he, and most of the members of the bar who were present managed to get to the restroom in the courthouse basement before breaking out in gales of laughter.  The sounds carried up the stone staircases all the way to the Judge's Chambers, where even His Honor could not suppress his own hearty smile.


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