3/21/2009

Living and Dying History

I have always had an unfettered love of history and in particular social history. For many years my main pursuit was what is called "Living History" whereby people try to recreate the social history of the past in order to educate modern people and help them place historical events in a context.

Part of that pursuit is keeping alive traditions and crafts that may have little place in today's society but that were vital to our ancestors.

One of the fondest wishes for those of us in that hobby would be the chance to meet someone who actually practiced those trades and crafts rather than learning them from books or trying to re-create them from period documents and analyzing artifacts.

In the mountains of North Carolina near Knoxville, TN one of those rare people still inhabited the woods. Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton might have been the last of the old time 'shiners. He produced Sour Mash whiskey as it had been made in the hills by the descendants of Scots-Irish settlers for two hundred or more years.

Unfortunately, the federal government has always looked unkindly on producing this traditional drink without being a big company. They arrested "Popcorn" and were going to send him to prison in the swamps of South Georgia, far from his beloved mountains. Despite pleas by Sutton and his family among those who knew him through academic study of mountain traditions, the compassionate folks in the Federal Courts decided that house arrest wasn't good enough for the elderly man. They prepared to pack him off to prison for 18 months. "Popcorn" Sutton in a desperate act to remain in his beloved mountains killed himself an was buried in the hills of North Carolina in a simple pine coffin.

Good work, guys. While many of us try to keep history living, you managed to kill it with your desire to make an example of an old man who was perhaps the last true "hillbilly."

Story from AP:

“He couldn’t go to prison. His mind would just not accept it. … So, credit the federal government for my husband being dead, I really do,” Pam Sutton said in an interview Wednesday from the couple’s home in the Parrottsville community, about 50 miles east of Knoxville.

A few hours earlier, she had buried Sutton, 62, in a private ceremony in the mountains around Haywood County, N.C., where he grew up. He went to his grave in a pine casket he bought years ago and kept in a bedroom.

Sutton — nicknamed “Popcorn” for smashing up a popcorn machine in a bar with a pool cue in his 20s — looked like a living caricature of a mountain moonshiner. He wore a long gray beard, faded overalls, checkered shirt and feathered fedora.

He wrote a paperback called Me and My Likker and recorded videos on how to make moonshine. The History Channel featured him in a 2007 documentary called Hillbilly: The Real Story.

“You might say he embodied a kind of Appalachian archetype, a character trait of fearlessness and fierce loyalty to regional identity even in the face of personal persecution and stereotyping,” said Ted Olson, a regional writer and faculty member in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Appalachian Studies.

Sutton conceded he was part of a dying breed in an interview last year with actor Johnny Knoxville for a video posted on Knoxville’s Jackass Web site.

“All the rest of them that I know are dead,” Sutton said in the profane, not-for-primetime clip. “I just hope and pray they don’t send me off (to prison).”

Sutton’s widow said he’d just gotten a letter to report Friday to a medium-security federal prison in south Georgia to begin an 18-month sentence for illegally producing distilled spirits and being a felon in possession of a gun. He had pleaded guilty in April.

On Monday, she came home from running errands and found him dead in his old Ford. Authorities suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. Autopsy results may be weeks away.

Pam Sutton, who became Sutton’s fourth wife in 2007, said carbon monoxide may be the method but that’s not what killed him.

“He tried every way in the world to get them (federal authorities) to leave him on house arrest,” she said.

John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., recalled that Sutton made a still for the museum in the 1990s.

Irwin told Sutton to run nothing but water through it. But with thousands of people visiting for an annual homecoming event, Sutton decided to cook up some real sour mash.

“Popcorn is getting everybody drunk,” the governor’s Highway Patrol escorts complained, and when Irwin told him to stop, Sutton packed up and left, Irwin recalled.

Sutton’s last arrest followed a raid in which authorities found nearly 1,700 gallons of moonshine in Parrottsville and a storage unit in North Carolina, three stills, firearms and ammunition.

When he pleaded guilty, it was his fifth conviction. He’d gotten probation before, but U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer said he couldn’t do that again, despite Sutton’s age and physical infirmities.

His estranged daughter, Sky Sutton, 35, of Northampton, Mass., had just completed a book about him, titled Daddy Moonshine, the day he died. She hadn’t seen him since she was 2, though they had talked on the phone.

“That man went out in a blaze of glory, and flipping his finger as he went,” she said.


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