That led us to reminisce. We both use that annual event and our past participation in it as the example of the time in our lives when we have been most exhausted. We do so with smiles on our faces and a lilt in our voices, because we know how important this event is to bring old and young together and to reflect upon the past and the future of Appalachia.
I was a Swappin’ Meetin’ greenhorn that first year at Southeast in 1978 and had never driven a tractor, but Harold Patterson, who headed the Upward Bound program, told me that it would “be a piece of cake.” And it was: round and round I went on that tractor to grind the cane that milked the syrup so that that dark, mysterious sorghum molasses could be made and put in Mason jars where it would eventually end up on someone’s Johnny cake with a side of bacon or sausage for dipping.
Another year, I decided to learn Appalachian stories, make myself a broomstick skirt and a bonnet and tell stories. So Alexa Bowman, Faye Simpson, James Goode, Jr., and I became Dream Weavers, telling stories to anyone who would listen and always adding a bit of make believe, the supernatural, as we spoke of “haints” in the mountains and sounds of crying babies along creeks and over bridges.
The biggest challenge, however, came the year I decided to make moonshine. Most would think that impossible, but I seldom back off a challenge.
The first step was to gain the approval in writing of the Commonwealth of Kentucky to not only make it on the college campus in Cumberland but also to allow those 21 and over to sample it. With approval in hand, the next question was “How do I do it?” Remember, there was no computer on the college campus at the time and no Internet, so there was no Googling to learn the easiest approach.
From the get go, I had people giving me all kinds of advice. Advice is cheap and stories are interesting; however, I needed to get down to the “nitty gritty” of it all with perfect timing so that we would be “good to go” the first weekend in October.
So, I hired two consultants. Both were not the usual college consultants unless you call prison records and multiple scars, including one from ear to ear, as items you want on a resume. But they did know the ins and outs of making moonshine.
The first thing was to get the mash ready. I made several trips to the basement of Falkenstein Hall where the mash was working. Rats love that stuff, so from time to time, we had to grab one by its very long tail and put it in the trash. Were those rats inebriated before they bit the dust? I’m not sure because they were dead by the time I saw them.
In what seemed like short order, the consultants built the still with the help of Ralph White and others on the maintenance staff (Those who have engaged in this occupation know that stills must be moved at a moment’s notice when “the law is a comin”).
Little did I know that the real work would begin when it was time to run the still. It’s a back breaking task that never seems to end: the fire has to be just right, and I was the laborer for this part of the job as my consultants supervised.
The first part of a run has to be mixed with later runs to get the proof just right, and the consultants were the master chefs in that part of the process.
Our exhibit was quite popular, and my consultants invited their friends for a Friday night hoe down. They brought fiddles and guitars, roasted meat on the fire and consumed more than the tiny measure I had agreed upon as a reasonable sample.
Saturday afternoon came and it was time to shut down the Swappin’ Meetin’ for another year. The only problem was we had a big box filled with Mason jars, jars filled to the brim with white lightning.
Per my agreement with the Commonwealth, I put that box in my car, drove up behind Newman Hall and emptied each jar in the grass.
When I came back to the still, my consultants asked, “Okay, now where did you put it?”
I replied, “I dumped it.”
“You’re kidding. Where did you put it?”
“As I said, I dumped it.”
“Lord have mercy, this crazy woman dumped that good shine we worked so hard to run.”
When I got home that Saturday night, every bone and muscle in my body ached. I was totally exhausted. And my photo had been featured in the local press. I had on bibs, red long-handle underwear, and a floppy leather hat from my hippy days. There was a look of total exhaustion on my face. One of my consultants was all stretched out in the photo taking a little nip, obviously having a grand old time.
Move forward to the next year. I got a call from my consultants telling me it was time to set up the still and get the mash going. My response, “We’re not doing that anymore.”
So that year I decided to do hog killing, a much easier project. I went to the grocery, bought some hog’s heads and feet, asked James Goode, Sr., to bring his slides of hog butchering and his .22 rifle, pushed the chairs back in my office, and told the children of my early memories of the year my dad decided to raise two hogs. As the resident consultant, Goode was excellent. And my job that year was easy, just a trip to the supermarket and relating a childhood story.
Dr. Bruce Ayers was honored this year as Southeast celebrated its 48th Kingdom Come Swappin’ Meetin.’ What an honor for Bruce, a well-deserved honor! And thanks to all of those in and around the county who work so hard to bring the past to life in such an exciting way for so many.