You may or may not be aware that I have been spending a lot of my time recently developing the website for Thunder Road Wine Trail, a new wine trail in East Tennessee which has six wineries, many of which are on the original Thunder Road and Copperhead Road — both of which were routes driven by moonshiners to take their wares to big-city markets.
It has been fascinating learning about the moonshine history in our area as well as getting to know the original Thunder Road a little better through newspaper articles, talking with people with ties to it, reading books, and watching the original Robert Mitchum movie called Thunder Road. The original route made famous in the Thunder Road movie theme song is from Harlan, KY to Bearden TN.
Jim and I had never been to Harlan, KY — where it all began. It was a beautiful day and it was time for a road trip. I had two destinations in mind: Twila, KY and Harlan, KY. Harlan is obvious. Twila, not so much.
Roarin’ out of Harlan, revvin’ up his mill
He shot the gap at Cumberland, and screamed by Maynordsville
Return to Thunder Road – The Book
The book, Return to Thunder Road, The Story Behind the Legend, 2nd Edition, by Alex Gabbard, is a wonderful source for lots of detail about the moonshine era. It answered a lot of questions I had.
For example, in the Thunder Road movie, when they were in pursuit by the law, they flipped a switch in the car and drained out the illegal alcohol from the large, concealed holding tank. In actuality, these holding tanks were quite rare. Most moonshine was stored in bottles and packed in boxes or crates in the back seat and trunk of the vehicles.
Now, back to Twila. The real-life moonshiner that the movie Thunder Road was about was nicknamed “Tweedle-O-Twill”. The Alex Gabbard book says that the movie folks did not feel that they could use that nickname because it was also the name of a popular song of the time by Gene Autry, so they used “Whip-Poor-Will” instead. And the book goes on to conjecture that the Nickname “Tweedle-O-Twill” may have come from Twila, Ky where Tweedle-O-Twill came from — a stone’s throw from Harlan. That is why we had to visit Twila, KY.
If you look at it on a map, the road to Twila KY dead ends. And reality is no different. It is the end of the road for many of the poor people that live there — both literally and figuratively. Some homes were taken care of with great pride. Others were cluttered with junk collected over a lifetime and overrun with weeds. I did not take any photos of the homes. The pictures could not do them justice.
I could easily imagine why someone from Twila would get involved with hauling moonshine. It was good money. Yes, there was risk involved, but when you lived in Twila, there were not many options. Visiting Twila made this very clear.
Coal Mining – a Livelihood
This is coal mining country. Still is to a much lesser degree. We saw strip mining in places. But back in the day, it was everyone’s livelihood — especially in Twila and Harlan. Just last week, I talked with two people from around here in Maynardville, whose fathers worked in the coal mines. Both ended up getting black lung disease.
We later saw monuments to the coal miners in Harlan, KY who gave their lives pursuing their profession. Some years, more than 20 lives were lost. Most years, lives were lost. Comparing monuments in the town square of Harlan, it became quite obvious that many, many more Harlan County lives were lost in mining accidents than were lost in the World Wars.
More recently, many of the strip mines have been converted to reclaimed land. We passed one expansive Off-Road vehicle area called Wilderness Trail Off-Road Park along the way (directions), that offered recreational opportunities for ATV’s, motorcycles and road bikes.
Our visit to Harlan was not what I expected. It was and is the county seat. I guess that explains a lot. It was a much bigger town than I expected. There were many town blocks, not just one main street. And lawyers in every storefront surrounding the Courthouse.
It had seen better days. I can only imagine what it was like back in the 40’s and 50’s. I bet it was a happening place.
I have a thing for barber shops in small towns. I absolutely MUST look in their windows. There is always a little surprise. This one was no exception. Note the camouflage barber chair seat cover. Place was as clean as could be.
Plan a Day Trip
We took this trip last week around the first week of October. The trees had not turned yet. There is still time to jump in the car and make a day trip out to visit some history and enjoy the fall colors.
Life is an Adventure!