Dubois County dew
If stories of moonshiners are the stuff of myth, Dubois County is Mount Olympus. Now, the last of the whiskey makers tell their tales.
Patrick Schmitt steps into the shadows of his old pole barn. A stack of log timbers rises next to a raised wood-plank hayloft. A navy blue 1954 tractor faces the open barn door. Its tires, almost as tall as the 82-year-old farmer, are caked with mud and grass.
And back in a dark corner of the hayloft stands a dusty old, worn oak barrel. Schmitt tilts the barrel on its side and rolls it over the barn's gravel floor as if it were an afternoon chore. Without effort, he stands it up on the grass outside. Both the barrel and Schmitt are broad and sturdy. His skin is creased, dry and brown like the barrel's curved wooden planks. His black belt wraps around his tan trousers like the metal bands that hold those planks together.
"Dubois County Dew, that's what they used to call it," Schmitt says as he looks down into the barrel's charred walls. "The first thing you gotta have is a 50-gallon wood barrel if you want to make good moonshine."
Good moonshine is an understatement. Dubois County was, and perhaps still is, infamous for its white lightning. Dubois County historian Arthur Nordhoff says German settlers brought the art of distilling to the area. They were used to making schnapps, sherry and wine. They had recipes handed down over generations, they knew how to mix the ingredients safely and they didn't cut corners like using lead in the still or adding lye to decrease fermentation time.
Norman Taylor with the Indiana History Project researches moonshining and bootlegging in Southern Indiana. He says while moonshine was made in other places, usually as a revenue source, it was distilled in Dubois County out of cultural tradition, custom and of course an appreciation for their product. But not everyone was so keen on alcohol.
"A lot of people, especially during Prohibition, were actually against drinking, and alcohol was frowned upon by a lot of members of society," Taylor says.
But moonshine flowed like a river through Dubois County during the 1850s, into Prohibition, through the Depression and well into the 1960s. The shine helped shape the landscape and character of the communities of the region. Take a hike across the fields of Dubois County, for example, and you're likely to stumble across stumps of white oak with holes bored into them. Whiskey makers toasted the wood shavings to add color and flavor to the liquor.
Schmitt grew up cooking whiskey. His grandfather taught his father, and his father taught his brother. Every August, after the hay was in and before the corn was ready to harvest, Schmitt's father set up the still. A typical recipe for Schmitt's dew was three gallons of cracked corn, 100 pounds of sugar and six packets of Fleishman's yeast. They added water, stirred it up and let the mixture ferment for about six days. Schmitt and his family strained the liquid, called a mash, through a burlap sack and poured what was left, which is the wash, into a copper pot. The wash boiled in the pot and created a vapor that ran through a copper tube that was submerged and cooled in water.
"We'd ask the ice delivery man for a little more ice when we'd cook the whiskey," Schmitt says. "We'd tell him we needed a little extra because we wanted to make ice cream."
As the vapors cooled and condensed in the copper tubing, Dubois County Dew was born. Schmitt and his family fired up the still at around 3 p.m. and finished by 7 a.m. They produced about 20 gallons of moonshine, enough for the rest of the year.
Schmitt packed up the still and stored it in the hayloft until the next August. The family split the shine and shared a few jugs with friendly neighbors. They never sold a drop.
A household staple, the spirits weren't just for rowdy nights. Another Dubois old-time farmer and distiller, 84-year-old Francis Lindauer, gave his son Mike a "Hot Toddy," a homemade cough syrup that was a mixture of water, honey and warm moonshine.
"I probably had my first taste of schnapps when I was five years old," Mike says. "It wasn't anything special, just another thing to drink."
Mike, his father and many other Dubois County farmers still speak German and never use terms like moonshine or whiskey. German was the language you heard drifting around the still site and schnapps was what streamed from the copper tubing.
But not every family distilled for their own use. In 1919, when Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol, the people of Dubois County saw opportunity. And since they were distilling whiskey anyway, farmers who couldn't make enough money off their crops turned to bootlegging to pay the mortgage. Dubois County Dew flowed as far as St. Louis, Louisville and Chicago. Nordhoff says Al Capone was a fan of the county's high-grade shine and sold it in his Chicago speakeasies. Illegal whiskey was also used to trade for farm equipment or to pay off a debt. Schmitt says he knew guys who loaded their trucks with jugs of moonshine, covered it with clover seed, a type of hay, and hauled the load to Louisville. A grain shop on Market Street apparently couldn't get enough Dubois County clover.
Bootlegging brought income for farmers, but it also brought revenuers looking to stop moonshine production and gangsters scheming to steal it. Mike remembers a story about his wife's uncle, who hid seven 50-gallon barrels of moonshine in a dry well under his chicken house. Raiders caught wind of his stores and came to the farmhouse armed with rifles and handguns. One of them held the women hostage at gunpoint, and the other forced Mike's in-law to give up his liquor. The uncle didn't make his mortgage payment that year.
If bootleggers weren't fighting off raiders they were ducking the law. Nordhoff's grandfather was a revenuer, one of many who roamed the county. Nordhoff says it made for awkward family dinners. His grandfather talked about a still he busted up that day while other family members were hiding theirs. Farmers found creative ways to hide and smuggle whiskey. Many put jugs inside car doors or under manure piles. Covering barrels in manure not only hid them but also created heat that enhanced fermentation. Bootleggers put blocks in the undercarriages of their vehicles to keep a car or truck from sagging - a sure sign a load of moonshine was being hauled.
The illegal sale of alcohol not only helped some Dubois County farmers make ends meet, but it also helped fuel the local economy. Today, old red brick factories line the streets of downtown Jasper. Some are abandoned, some are owned by foreign companies and some are still owned locally. During the '20s and '30s, those furniture companies were just starting up. Because revenuers checked bank accounts to see who was depositing suspicious amounts of cash, bootleggers invested their excess profits into company stocks, helping to make Jasper the furniture capital of the world at the time.
"When their parents died, a lot of their children asked how mom and dad had all this stock in local companies," Nordhoff says. "Well, it was moonshine money."
Bootlegging began to taper off after the Depression, but moonshining kept on as it always had. During high school, Nordhoff remembers going to dance halls in 1950s and seeing college students hanging around trying to get their hands on a bottle of dew. Locals headed to the hall's parking lots and sold the shine out of the trunk.
Nordhoff worked at a bottling plant then, and every week or so a pick-up truck pulled up to the plant. The driver waited in the cab as Nordhoff and his co-workers loaded the bed with glass gallon jugs. After it was full, the truck headed off, trailing dust just as quietly as it had come. No one asked questions, just another day on the job.
Almost anyone you talk to in Dubois County has a tale to tell about moonshine. But during the last 50 years, those stories are about all that's left. The art of distillation isn't passed down as it once was. But an exhibit in the Dubois County Museum is dedicated to whiskey-making. Norman says people are fascinated by stories of the poor farmer trying to make a buck and evading the law. Americans, he says, always root for the underdog.
The days of still-busting and dodging revenuers are long over. But distilling liquor, even for your own use, is still illegal in Indiana. Corp. Travis Thickstun with the Indiana Excise Police says there aren't many cases of bootleggers nowadays, and they will usually only investigate if someone logs a complaint.
Schmitt hasn't run a still in more than 60 years. Today the only alcohol he makes is wine. In his basement he has a batch fermenting in an oak barrel similar to the one in his barn. His basement walls are lined with dusty mason jars. He serves it during holidays and gives bottles away to his friends.
Schmitt rests in a recliner, twirling his father's hydrometer in his hands.
"I don't know where the term Dubois County Dew came from," Schmitt says. "But everybody sure knew what it was"