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Moonshine Lore lures Canadian to learn of local history

(c)2012 NPT PHOTO BY DAVID POPIEL

Old stills find a resting place on the Mike Proffitt farm. He has been collecting them
for many years and all are inoperable. This one of about 1,000-gallon capacity was
last producing moonshine in Cocke County around 2000 before being shut down.
From left are Proffitt, Gene Branam, and Canadian visitor Cory Dagg, of British
Columbia. Dagg visited the county last week to learn about the moonshine era for
his upcoming stage production.
Published: 10:13 PM, 08/17/2012
 

Author: David Popiel
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

This is the weekend of Showcase on the River in downtown Newport where sun is again shining to warm up the middle days of August for our hometown, enjoying county fair days, football, and counting the fogs in August.

You read in the Plain Talk that Rural Medical Services CEO Larry Stanifer announced the plan to build a 15,000 square feet Newport clinic and administration center off Hedrick Drive. This is going to be a huge boast for medical care. I also got to see our newest doctors to be joining Rural Medical Services. They are the husband and wife team of Nathan and Megan Dewitt. The Tennesseans are family practioners. Dr. Nathan DeWitt begins practice here August 20, and his wife soon after she finishes residency. You will read more about these doctors soon in the Plain Talk.

I guess you are happy to see the wider, better I-40 overpass bridge with all four of its lanes open, as it did so on Wednesday, as promised. I am wondering if any work has begun on the new Highway 411 to Chestnut Hill? Two items worth mentioning is that the Westers celebrated 25 years operating Dixie Pawn Shop off Cosby Hwy. And, though the Men's Den has officially closed I see someone has a large stock of merchandise in windows and assume it is for sale. Hope to find out more on this and share the news here.

History lessons prove interesting

Before returning to our talk and visit with Von and Carolyn Smith and reminiscing about their family and Bybee, let me tell you of a most interesting meeting I had last Tuesday and Wednesday. Another Smith led me to this meeting, Jim Smith of Newport, that is, called to tell me of a Canadian interested in learning local lore. Jim, I found out, is a brother to an old friend of mine and yours who died of lung cancer, Harold Smith, retired electrician from ConAgra plant. You may know their sisters, Jean Cureton, of Newport, and Aileen Renner, wife of J.E. Renner, and working at the family business, Renner Trucking. Jim is president of Hard Times Street Rod Club and talked with Cory Dagg, of British Columbia. If you don't know your geography, this beautiful Pacific Ocean side country is about three hours due north of Seattle, Washington. Jim said that Cory was interested in learning about the local moonshine lore. Fortunately I know two men who have great knowledge and keen interest in Cocke County history of moonshine (White Lightning) production.

Dagg is a slim, middle-aged eloquent man whose background is in acting, TV and film in Canada. He operates Actors Studio in Kelowna, BC. We talked about his research into Moonshine and still operations because he plans a stage production that is based on fact but will be fictional. He wants to be authentic as possible in presenting the side of moonshine involving hauling and distribution. Remember Robert Mitchum in "Thunder Road"? Things fell into place for Dagg because I was able to introduce him to Mike Proffitt and Gene Branam, who came to the Plain Talk. They made the time to show him around and give him accurate information rather than mythology about moonshine. Gene has been collecting and writing in hopes of publishing a book on moonshine history and lore. Gene did give me a glimpse at an outstanding almanac he has created for Cocke County history, and I encouraged him to have it published. For those who don't know, Mike has created his small paradise on a farm near Newport and on it rustic cabins adorned with implements relics of the past and containing many antiques. His property is populated with non-working stills one formerly operated by the legendary Popcorn Sutton. Dagg was impressed with the collection, even as a non-alcohol drinker. We also chatted about L.D. Ottinger and Junior Johnson, the legendary NASCAR racer who also hauled whiskey as a young man. Who knows, the Appalachia states residents may one day get a chance to attend a national tour of Dagg's future stage production.

Gail Holt, a Tragic Story

One of several sad stories told to me by Von Smith concerns the girl who became part of their family, when the Smiths lived and worked in Cleveland, Ohio. Gail Heffelfinger came to the Smith home via church connections after a fire had killed her mother, who tossed her children out of a burning building to save their lives. Gail was about age 13 at the time, about 1960, and eventually stayed in Cocke County where she had visited every summer. At one time she was married to Chester holt, and they had a son, Christopher. Gail was an industrious person working first at Wall Tube, then for Bill Agee when he was president of National Bank of Newport, which opened in 1957. After this she worked for former Cocke County Executive Charles Lewis Moore. He recalled it was during his first term of office about 1982-83 and "she was an excellent employee, very smart."

When I casually mentioned to my advertising manager Betty McMillan that I had learned about a Gail Holt, Betty became excited because during the 1980s she was a close friend of Gail's. Another single parent who was very close was Iris Dale Glenn Fox, a sister to Dan Freeman. Iris Dale worked at National Bank and died in April 2003.

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