A history of Upper Cumberland violence and its effects

A Liberal Dose


I’m currently working on a project that includes, among other sub-topics, violent crime in Appalachia. I am reminded of my topic, as if I could escape it, as I drive around the county and see all the campaign signs for the coming local elections, which include that of county sheriff. Candidates for office -  and not only for the office of sheriff -regularly pledge they will be the one who curbs crime in the area. And crime is, and always has been, a problem in our county and our region. For generations, illicit stills in the Upper Cumberland woods were among the most productive in the nation (my grandfather operated one, and went to prison twice - once for making it and once for running it). For decades after that, this region produced a disproportionately large amount of marijuana. Twenty years ago, it was meth and oxycontin, now it is opioids, especially heroin and fentanyl.

And there has been violence. White County has had four law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, three of them in the same year (1924) and the fourth just a few years later (1931). If you know your history, you will recognize that those dates fall within the range of Prohibition (1920-1933), when it was against the law to make or sell alcohol (so of course there was a huge demand for it). I’ve written here before about Chief Sergeant Hugh Lowery, of the Bon Air Police Department - there is a historical marker about him on Highway 70 as you get to the top of the mountain. He was gunned down after stopping a car whose passengers included a man who had just been drunkenly discharging firearms in the mining town, no doubt obtained from a moonshiner. That was April 23, 1924. Three months earlier, Deputy Sheriff William Welch was shot and killed while part of a raid on a moonshiner’s house (also on the mountain). That November, Deputy Sheriff Edward I. Gore was killed on Gum Springs Mountain while pursuing a fugitive moonshiner. Finally, in 1931, Deputy Sheriff Harkless Grundy Kirby was shot and killed from ambush while destroying a still.

Surrounding counties all have their similar stories, most taking place either during the Moonshine Wars (1870s to 1890s, when the newly established Internal Revenue Service first started efforts to suppress untaxed liquor - those infernal Revenuers!) or Prohibition. Casualties included one of my own ancestors, who was a Gainesboro constable in the 1860s. While these are the sort of tales that get romanticized in movies, they were not that romantic for those involved - much less the drug-related crimes in the decades since.

But why is it that, for 150 years, illicit drug and alcohol manufacture and distribution have been so prevalent here? Is it because, as author J.D. Vance has made a fortune claiming, there is something intrinsically wrong with our culture? Is it because people of the Upper Cumberland and Appalachia, in general, are naturally less moral than people in other parts of the country?


It is because the Upper Cumberland and Appalachia, in general, are traditionally economic-depressed regions, among the most depressed in the nation. While there is no excuse or justification for crime, there is an explanation for it – poverty, and lack of opportunities to advance in life, lead some people to desperate acts… and lead other people to look for a temporary way to escape the bleak reality around them, creating a loop. Treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease is never going to work in the long run.

What actually is the cause for that economic depression, and how can it be treated? I’ll address that next time. For today I want to close by saying that the ultimate problem is beyond the scope of any sheriff to fix. But a sheriff can sure as heck make it worse. I’m glad we finally have one who doesn’t.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.         


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