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Moonshine and murder on the mountain

James Rada

Originally published in the Thurmont Dispatch

Even with the approach of evening, July 31, 1929, was still a warm day on Catoctin Mountain. Two cars drove up the mountain on Route 77, a dirt road leading from Thurmont to Hagerstown.

Six men rode in the cars. Only five would be alive two hours later.

The cars pulled off the side of the road. Frederick County Deputy John Hemp and Lester Hoffman climbed out of one of them.

Although not a deputy, Hoffman was the only one in the group who knew his way through the forest to what an informant had described a week earlier as a "large liquor plant."

This was the Prohibition era in the U.S. and although liquor was illegal, people still craved it. And so others made moonshine in stills hidden in mountains close to farms that supplied the grain needed for the fermentation process.

The five deputies and Hoffman were headed to destroy just such a still, but first they needed to prove the Catoctin Mountain operation was making moonshine.

The two men carried a jug as they headed up the winding mountain path. A man sitting atop a large rock alongside the path stood up and blocked their way.

According to The Frederick Post, the exchange went like this:

"Where are yuh goin'?" he asked.

"We want to buy some liquor," Hemp said.

"Yuh better git out of here if yuh don't want to git shot," the mountaineer retorted, according to the officers.

Hemp and Hoffman turned around and walked back to the rest of their group. Then, joined by deputies Verner Redmond, William Wertenbaker, William Steiner and Clyde Hauver, they all started toward the still.

"The officers, in attempting to creep up on the small vale in which the still was situated, ascended a winding mountain path, which led abruptly to the scene of the tragedy," reported the newspaper.

Hauver and Redmond led the group. As they neared the still, shots rang out. Hauver fell and the deputies scattered for cover as the moonshiners fired on them, hidden by the underbrush.

The deputies returned fire and the moonshiners retreated.

"The sheriff's forces did not immediately realize that Hauver had been mortally wounded and, thinking he had merely tripped over a root, were intent only on the capture of the moonshiners. Counting up their forces after the fusillade of firing, Hauver was missing and, returning to the scene, he was found with his head in a pool of blood and his life was fast ebbing away," the newspaper reported.

George Wireman wrote in a 1993 article, "From one of the statements gathered, it was learned that the bullet that struck Clyde Hauver was indeed intended for Deputy Redmond."

Catoctin Mountain Park Ranger Debra Mills said, "Legend has it, he (Hauver) may have been involved in a love triangle and was shot in the back."

Dr. Morris Birely from Thurmont treated Hauver while waiting for an ambulance. The ambulance took Hauver to the hospital in Frederick.

"Although everything possible was done for Hauver he never had a chance. When he reached the hospital he had no pulse and was nearly bloodless, so great had been the loss of blood during his time he laid in the mountain trail and during the time necessary to bring him to Frederick," reported the newspaper.

Once Hauver was on his way to Frederick, the remaining deputies used picks and axes to destroy the vats and boiler. The newspaper reported that Blue Blazes Still was "one of the largest and best equipped in Frederick County" It had a boiler from a steam locomotive, 20 500-gallon-capacity wooden vats filled with corn mash, two condensing coils and a cooling box.

Mills said the still produced alcohol so fast that if a man took away a five-gallon bucket of alcohol and dumped it into a vat, by the time he returned to the still, another bucket would be filled and waiting to be removed.

A manhunt started for the moonshiners and eight men were eventually jailed. Charles Lewis was convicted of first-degree murder in the Washington County Circuit Court on March 7, 1930. Governor Theodore McKeldin commuted the sentence in 1950 when Lewis was 65. He died a short time after his release.

Today, the Blue Blazes Still is gone, but the National Park Service has a 50-gallon pot still captured in a Tennessee raid on the same location. NPS uses it for presentations about moonshining in the mountains.

"It's not because we want to glorify an illegal enterprise," said Mills. "It lets people know alcohol production was an important part of our heritage."

The NPS actually operated the still for demonstrations from 1970 to 1989. It was the first still ever to operate legally on government property, according to Wireman.

Alcohol production from the still stopped when the NPS lost its license in 1989.

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