Moonshine memories still linger in Newcastle

October 9, 2011

By Gwynneth Anderson

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The revenuers came to arrest Frank Martin’s dad in 1948.

Rumor has it that this still, displayed during the annual Newcastle Days, once belonged to former Newcastle resident Lee Martin. Lee’s son, Frank Martin, estimates that between the 1940s until the early 1950s, he helped his father make almost 10,000 gallons of moonshine near their Newcastle home. Contributed

Alerted by a disgruntled neighbor, several cars filled with federal agents anxious to find an illegal moonshine still swarmed up the Martins’ dirt driveway that Saturday morning in Newcastle.

“They tore the place apart trying to find something,” Frank said. “They searched the chicken coop, looked in the pig pen, checked the garden — they even inspected our furnace.”

The agents even questioned Martin.

“I remember one man pulling me aside to ask if I knew anything,” he said. “I was only a little boy at the time, maybe 8 or 9, and I was scared. I just kept saying over and over, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’”

The agents called off the search after finding nothing that hinted at the presence of a still, but they weren’t convinced Lee Martin was innocent.

Three weeks passed before the strange cars keeping vigil at the foot of the Martin property disappeared. Lee waited another week before fetching the still out of hiding and firing it back up.

Thanks to a tipoff from the local authorities who enjoyed his particular brew, Lee knew about the impending raid in advance. There was just enough time to feed most of the fermented mash to his pigs and hide the rest — including the still — in the woods now known as Cougar Mountain Wildland Park before agents arrived.

Lee realized that if he was going to continue making moonshine, the still needed an undetectable location.

He found it right outside his back door. The looming mass of blackberry bushes in the Martins’ back yard offered the perfect spot.

Carefully digging into the middle of the thorny mass, Lee hollowed out an area wide enough to hold the cooking stove and high enough to fit the still.

When it came time to cook the mash, Lee poked a small stovepipe up through the brambles that helped dissipate the smoke. Once the mash was cooked, the pipe was pulled back inside the hollowed center, leaving no sign that the blackberry bushes were anything but an overgrown, brambly heap of vicious thorns.

The Martins were back in business.

How Lee outwitted federal agents is just one of the many stories Frank, 70, who now lives in Renton, chuckles over when recalling a moonshine-steeped, Newcastle boyhood.

“It was around 1944 or so when I first started helping Dad make the whiskey,” he said. “I remember my father kept telling me, ‘You need to learn how to count.’ So I learned, and my first job was counting the gallon jugs of moonshine on the cellar shelf — all the way to 50.”

As he grew older, responsibilities increased.

If he wasn’t scrubbing out the mash barrels and prepping them for the next load, he was lugging heavy buckets of water from the nearby creek to pour over the still’s condenser coils to ensure the alcohol didn’t evaporate when it dripped into the gallon jugs.

Fortunately, moonshine making was mostly a weekend event. During the week, the mash was left to ferment in one of three 50-gallon barrels while Lee worked in the local coalmines. Saturday was cook day and ran from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., or until all the fermented mash was processed.

Sunday was delivery day.

“We’d cook about 100 gallons of mash per month, and that gave us between 40 and 50 gallons of whiskey,” Frank said. “Come Sunday, when everyone else was in church, we’d drop it off at the local store.”

Frank estimates that between 1944 until the early 1950s, he helped his father make almost 10,000 gallons of moonshine.

“You can make moonshine from many things,” Frank said. “We made it from peaches, corn, plums, even apples.”

While flavor was certainly important for the customers, purity was paramount for Lee. Some moonshiners would cut corners by running their whiskey through old car radiators that leached lead into the moonshine, giving unwitting patrons lead poisoning.

Not so with Lee. Frank said his father refused to use anything in his still except silver solder or hand-rolled copper to avoid accidental seeping.

Alcohol proof level also helped determine product purity.

“Dad would flick moonshine drops onto an open flame to determine its strength,” Frank said. “If the flame was yellow, it was less than 80 proof and had to be run through the still again. If the color flashed bright blue, it meant the whiskey was 150 proof and ready to go.”

Moonshine wasn’t just a drink with a potent kick, it was currency for cash-strapped times.

“Moonshine was what kept the food coming in for us when there were no jobs to be had,” Frank said. “We’d deliver the jugs to the local store, the owner would count them … for when we came back later in the week to pick up groceries.”

Lee would eventually receive another tipoff.

“Someone told Dad that the last Newcastle mines were going to close in six months and that he should find another job before everyone else started looking,” Frank said.

Lee took the advice. He soon landed a clay mixer’s job in Renton but realized that doing so meant making a serious decision.

While Newcastle’s sparse population had allowed him the privacy he needed to run a still, Renton was a whole different matter. For safety’s sake, the still had to be shut down for good.

After almost six years of moonshining, Lee gave the still away to an old friend and moved his family to a new life in Renton.

He never returned to Newcastle.

But his legacy still lives here.

Rumor has it that the still displayed during the annual Newcastle Days once belonged to Lee Martin.

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One Response to “Moonshine memories still linger in Newcastle”

  1. Steve Baima on October 15th, 2011 3:14 pm

    The still that is displayed at the Newcastle Days event is mine. I loaned it to Milt Swanson. When my father vacated his Newcastle home, he had a number of artifacts. I took a few of them. They are stored at my home near Factoria. I have some carbide lanterns, electric lantern, his hard hat from the mine and a large eledtric drill for drilling and blasting in the mines. My father was a “powder monkey.” That indicated that he specialized in blasting. We always had dynamite and blasting caps around the house. We kids knew what they were and respected that fact. As for the still, the Lee Martin family were friends of our family. Although Lee lived a different life style than my father, they were friends through the work at the mine. My father (John Baima) was a resourseful man. Not unlike many of the miners. This bore the expression that necessity was the mother of invention. The condensor in the picture, appears to be the one that I loaned to Milt. The boiler appears to be different. The one that my father made, had a more rounded top, where the funnel meets the boiler. Milt still has my still. You can compare them. I can also remember my father making his own Grappa. This is an Italian liquer, distilled from wine and mash. This is an after dinner drink that Italians consume following meals. They call it a “digestive.” Although it tasts a little bit harsh, my father had his own recipe and it was a delicacy in our home.
    Steve Baima

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