Marshall County, Oklahoma
Dark Corner had no real boundaries before 1907, when the school districts were drawn; it was just there, in the eastern part of Marshall County near the Washita River. It was somewhat secluded and pretty much stayed so until the 1940's when the railroad was rerouted through it. Someone once said that to get to the remotest residence in Dark Corner you had to swing in on a grapevine. Even then, you were likely to find a note on the door saying: "Gone to the country." Those who lived in it knew where they lived and had a special feeling about this remote area. It was a close-knit community, but not without its problems.
It is evening in Dark Corner, and the year is 1933. The frogs on Lizzy Orberson (now known as Alberta Creek) start their deep bass chorus, as darkness eases across the landscape. A lone figure wearing mash-stained bib overalls and brogan shoes with the laces untied is stealthily carrying firewood into a secluded cave. The entrance to the cave, which faced westward, is sheltered by a growth of willows along the serpentine creek bank. A Winchester, lever-action 30-30 rifle leans ominously against an old worn-out, cane-bottom chair near the mouth of the cave. There are vertical marks scratched into the wall with a diagonal mark crossing them, almost as if someone had been keeping score of a domino game. Farther back in the cave is a stack of damp boxes, which contains quart-size Mason jars, glass rubber-lined lids and zinc rings. Other larger jars are randomly scattered along the south cave wall.
The deep guttural howl of a lone Red Wolf penetrates the sanctum of the cavern and seems to bounce from wall to wall. Involuntary chill bumps race up and down the moonshiner's spine and the hair on his neck stands erect. Even his stubble beard feels a tingling sensation and tries to join in the act. Man unexplainably has a primeval but unfounded fear of a wolf.
(The Red Wolf, which formerly inhabited this area, is now all but extinct. A few of that species were placed on an island off the coast of North Carolina in an attempt to save them from extinction. However, to show their gratitude they swam back to the mainland and man's efforts were for naught. Now, the ubiquitous coyote has replaced the Red Wolf and lives very comfortably among us not only in this area, but also throughout most of North America.)
A large cauldron is concealed around a corner of the cave to the north and a newly kindled fire is flickering to life. The licking flames cast eerie dancing shadows across the dank limestone walls of the cavern. The unique structure of the cave allows it to draw like a fireplace. A thin plume of blue smoke exits through a fissure in the ceiling of the cave. It ascends up through the branches of a lone gnarled pin oak tree growing on the craggy hillside above. The ever-present wind currents that accompany any sharp precipice whisk the smoke into oblivion.
A monkey-faced barn owl glides silently through the night air and lands in the pin oak without a whisper of a sound. It then shatters the serenity with its notorious call. (Every turkey hunter who has "roosted" a tom in the evening hours, before setting up to call it the next morning, knows and has mimicked that sound. It has been described thusly: "Who! Who! Who cooks for you?") The owl that has hearing far superior to that of man, cocks its head and zeroes in on the unmistakable sound of a mouse scurrying through the leaves across the creek. It springs from its perch and glides effortlessly away as silently as it had arrived.
If only the pin oak tree had been accessible for wood it would have been far more desirable than the red oak that was being used. Anyone who has ever burned red oak knows that it has a distinct odor that hints of a tomcat having been in the room.
The steady drip, drip, drip of water from a crack in the ceiling is just another annoyance in the clammy cave that has to be tolerated. Because of the location of the barrel, the moonshiner has to work underneath the drip. His tattered shirt is wet on the back and unbuttoned down the front, exposing the hairy chest of this medium-framed man. (It might be stretching it a bit to call him a businessman or an entrepreneur.) A bat flutters past as he stokes the fire and he takes a swipe at it with the stick in his hand. He stumbles and almost falls because of the wet, slimy gook under his feet. He removes his straw hat and wipes his brow and partially baldhead with a faded blue bandana, then continues to place wood on the fire. When the temperature reaches the proper level and the mash starts to boil, pure clear liquid drips into one of the jars from a coil of copper, known as a, "worm".
(This may have been the only major cave in Dark Corner, but it certainly wasn't the only still. At one time or another, there had been a still near most of the springs in the area. It was a common occurrence for one moonshiner to steal the equipment of another. Even some of the more affluent citizens of the community were reported to have run off an occasional batch of brew. Incidentally, I am related by marriage to the two main characters in this saga, so please don't ask me to identify them.)
Now, I must confess my own sins. When I was about ten years old I went into the winemaking business with someone, who shall remain anonymous. My partner-in-crime and I gathered a bucket of wild Grapes. I then sneaked out one of Mother's crock jars and I also pilfered just enough sugar that I thought she wouldn't miss it. We squeezed the grapes and mixed the sugar with the juice. Our contraband was hidden, with a dishtowel over the crock, in some tall broom weeds behind the chicken house. (As I reminisce, I think we could have found a more suitable hiding place.) After two or three hours under a scorching hot sun, we decided that it surely must be ready, so we took turns drinking our "wine" out of that big old crock jar. I'm still amazed that we didn't break the jar and that nobody asked about the purple stains on our chins and chests.
(The following occurrence transpired a few days prior to the activity in the cave.) A 1928 Model A Ford truck bounced along the deep rutted road that led down a steep hill. (That road was between the present road leading to the Alberta Creek Marina and the other fork that leads to the launching ramp.) At the foot of the hill the road was more level and made a sharp bend to the east before it crossed Lizzy Orberson going north. The driver of the flatbed truck was a 15-year-old, who was hauling hay for Mr. Wiley. The hay meadow lay to the east in the "Bottom" near Ben McCuan's place. To get there you had to drive between the Dillard Lemmons place and the house where Monroe and Claty Russell lived. (The "Bottom" was south of the present railroad fill and bridge.)
The boy's dad ran a store on Main Street in Woodville. He had been told to leave 200 pounds of sugar and some sacks of ground grain, normally considered as hog feed, beside an old stump, at the second bend in the road. The stump was about a stone's throw from a veiled cave.
Before leaving the store to haul more hay and make the delivery, he inquired of his dad about the intended use of the supplies. It wasn't hard to guess what the recipient planned to do. It was common knowledge that he "occasionally" ran a still. The Grocer told his son that everything that they were selling was legal and they couldn't rightfully refuse to sell to anyone even though they suspected that the merchandise was being used illegally.
The "groceries" were delivered according to the instructions that had been left at the time of the purchase. Later, it took all the power the truck had to climb back up that steep hill with its load of hay. When the road was muddy it was impossible for a truck, under it's own power, to make it up that hill. On many occasions when the boy was leaving the Bottom, the old moonshiner, upon hearing the truck stuck, had harnessed up his team of mules and pulled the truck to the top of the hill. Now, as the lad successfully negotiated the steep incline and drove away, nobody could have hazard to guess the ramifications this incident would have a half-century later.
The presence of mules at a whiskey still is significant. There is an oft-quoted scripture, (I Sam. 15-22) which I'll paraphrase; "Obedience is better than sacrifice." However, it is rare that you will hear the next sentence; "And to hearken than the fat of rams." According to Strong's Concordance the word hearken implies, "To prick up the ears." If you have ever seen a mule turn its head toward a sound and extend the ears forward, that's what's known as the pricking of the ears. Moonshiner's often kept one or two mules tethered near their still and keep an eye on them. They were used as silent sentries because of their acute hearing. Donkeys were also used but they are more vocal, therefore less desirable. If a mule heard a sound it would prick its ears toward the sound. The moonshiner, seeing this would grab his rifle, move away from the still and hide. If the intruder proved to be a law enforcement officer a silent retreat was executed. If it was just someone who unknowingly had wandered into the area, a shot or two fired from the cover of the brush usually resulted in a, not so silent, but rather hasty retreat by the intruder.
The late Russ Thompson who, once worked in law enforcement, told me about an interesting incident. Russ often rode a little black horse that belonged to Hamp Willis. He once rode up to where a known moonshiner lived. There was a baby boy in the yard, dressed in nothing but a saggy diaper, but nobody else showed their face. So, Russ asked the baby, "Where's your daddy?" The baby pointed down the hill and said, "He's down at the still." The father later swore that, "He's down at the still" was the first words ever uttered by that baby.
That young hay-hauler/delivery-boy is now a prominent senior citizen of the town of Kingston. He is totally honest and of unquestionable character. Some fifty years after he made that delivery, he was called to serve on a jury. The charge against the defendant was aiding in the manufacture of a controlled substance.
A man was on trial and his only crime was for selling legal merchandise that had been used for an illegal purpose. After all of the evidence was heard, the jury retired to decide the man's fate. The first vote cast was eleven for a conviction and one for acquittal. The jury foreman wanted to know, " Who's the Joker?" That's when our brave citizen stood up and told the story of his parallel boyhood scenario. He had delivered legal merchandise that was no-doubt used for an illegal purpose. (Incidentally, he doesn't leave out anything when he is repeating a story.) After a lengthy detailed explanation of his boyhood experience, he then stated, "If we send this man to prison, then I too must have deserved a prison sentence." On the next ballot there were twelve people who voted for acquittal.
Now, come and take a stroll with me down the walkway, over the water, to the Alberta Creek Store and Café. As we enter the front door, the aroma from the kitchen to the right will tantalize our taste buds, but for the moment, we will turn left and go over to the walk-in cooler where the drinks are stored. Take a guess as to what lies beneath our feet? Would you believe that the entrance to the moonshine cave is forty feet straight down? Since Alberta Creek is my favorite fishing place, I can't help but wonder as to how many monster-size catfish have made that cave their home. It is so amazing just how much history lies beneath our boats or in this case, under our feet, covered by the waters of beautiful Lake Texoma
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Written by Willis McWilliams
© Willis McWilliams 1999
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