By Brandon Hembree
There’s a moonshine still hidden out in the woods near Island Ford Baptist Church that you will never find, and neither did the Revenue Officers back many years ago when that still made illegal corn liquor….
Moonshining is not distinct to any state, but the folklore surrounding the craft seems particularly focused on Georgia. What was once illegal is now legal, and what was once done in secret is now done in the open. Gwinnett County and the families that were involved in moonshine production contributed towards a history that is just now beginning to be rediscovered. Sugar Hill, in particular, may have even received its name due to its connection with moonshiners that operated along the tributaries of the Chattahoochee River. The story often told is that a wagon loaded down with sugar for use at a local moonshine still overturned on a hill. Legend or folklore aside, Sugar Hill families like the Sudderths and the Pirkles were actively involved in the distillation and running of liquor.
Georgia’s history with moonshine has ties with the early Scotch-Irish settlers that had knowledge of the craft. The early equivalent of the IRS was started in the mid-1800s. Many rural Americans refused to pay taxes on alcohol and continued to operate their stills in secret. Georgia took an early stance on prohibition in 1908 by closing all bars and banning liquor production. In 1916, Georgia would go totally dry nearly four years before the United States would take a national approach against alcohol production and consumption. Prohibition in 1920 turned the craft into a lucrative, but illegal, business activity. The peak of illegal moonshine activity was in the 1930s and 1940s. The Depression, in particular, lingered longer in Georgia and times were very difficult for rural communities like Sugar Hill. Liquor-making was not only a good business but a necessity for families struggling to make ends meet. Families, like the Sudderths, would often augment income earning activities like sawmilling with moonshining.
Before the completion of Lake Lanier in 1957, Gwinnett County was an ideal location for illegal moonshine production. Woods, cool mountain streams, and dirt roads leading to surrounding counties were prevalent. The evidence of moonshining activity can still be found in the isolated areas of Sugar Hill near the Chattahoochee River. Moonshiners would make liquor from corn and other agricultural products. Runners, like the Pirkles, would deliver to paying customers all over Georgia. The Pirkle family lived on property that now includes the Sugar Hill Golf Course. Some individuals, like George Sudderth, would be risky by both distilling and delivering their own liquor.
George Sudderth and his family lived on the land where the Zaxby’s in Sugar Hill is currently located. He was born in Sugar Hill into a family of moonshiners. George began running moonshine at the age of twelve to customers in Gwinnett, Forsyth, and Dawson counties. His inductee plaque teaches us that “on September 23, 1975, Sudderth was raided by A.T.T.V. agents at his home in Sugar Hill.” The local Sheriff at the time, with ties to Sugar Hill, was William Dodd. He began serving as Sheriff in 1969 and would have been involved in the arrest. Interestingly enough, Sheriff Dodd is buried in the Sugar Hill Baptist Church Cemetery along with most of the Sudderth family.
George relocated to Dawson County in 1995, before moving to Flowery Branch. In 2016, George and his son, Andy, opened R.M. Rose Distillers in Dillard. They, along with George’s grandson, Seth, legally make some great spirits like “George Sudderth Corn Whiskey” and “Apple Whiskey” that are made from recipes developed in Sugar Hill. The company had been essentially shut down in Georgia in 1908. It is somewhat poetic that Andy, passionate about preserving the craft of distilling liquor, would choose to rescue the name of a once significant company like R.M. Rose. Families, like the Sudderths, are working hard to ensure that a craft once prevalent in Sugar Hill is passed down to future generations.
By Brandon Hembree