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Moonshining in the Catoctin

George Wireman

Many of the older citizens of Frederick County remember well the time of America's great depression. Many of these citizens lost their life's savings when the banks closed their doors. Many of the individuals caught in the depression couldn't cope with it and ended up taking their lives.

Life in the Thurmont area was quiet and peaceful, but in the mountains just west of the community there was much activity. The mountaineers were engaged in making moonshine. Their stills were hidden deep in the laurel-covered coves of the Catoctin Mountains.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, further west in Washington County, Pen Mar Park was doing a thriving business. Operated by the Western Maryland Railway, this amusement park was very popular indeed. On weekends and special holidays, the railroad it self did a very thriving business with their special excursions to the park from Cumberland and from Baltimore. Pen Mar Park soon became known as the "Coney Island of the Blue Ridge,"

While the park was attracting much attention, another operation in the Catoctin Mountains was in full swing. There were no excursions. There was no publicity like that of Pen Mar Park. The operation was secret, so secret in fact, that many of the local citizens knew little or nothing about it.

Located in a mountain wilderness about three miles west of Thurmont, in a neighborhood bearing the name of "Blue Blazes", in a somewhat small clearing of several hundred square yards was a still. It was one of the largest and best equipped still ever found in Frederick County. To give you the size of the operation, in addition to the still itself, there were 20 some vats of 700 gallons capacity each. These were filled with mash. There was also two condensing areas, a cooling box and a very large steam boiler. Those who were lucky enough to be trusted by the moonshiners and given the rare opportunity to visit the site, learned first-hand that moonshine was being turned out on a daily basis in large quantities.

In the spring of 1929, word had leaked out about the operation of the still and fell into the hands of the Frederick County Sheriff's Department. Since moonshining was indeed an illegal operation, the Sheriff's department felt that something should be done about it and the law-breakers apprehended. For several days the Sheriff's Department worked on plans to raid the still. Their plans were kept very secret for fear that word would get back to the operators of the still.

The Sheriff's Department had received much information about the still, given to Deputy Sheriff Verner Redmond by a Charles Lewis who lived in Foxville near the site of the still. Lewis told the officers all about the still, its location and the extensive scale of the operations.

As plans for the raid were completed, arrangements were made with Charles Lewis for the deputies to meet him at a given time and place near the still, where they would go over their final plans of action, just prior to the raid itself.

It had been arranged with Lewis that Deputies John Hemp and Leslie Hoffman were to visit the site of the still, where they would purchase a jug of whiskey. Deputies Clyde Hauver, Redmond, William Steiner, and William O. Wartenbaker, were to follow closely behind, but remain hidden in the underbrush.

When Deputy John Hemp and Deputy Leslie Hoffman reached the location where they were to meet Charles Lewis, there was no one in sight. Had something gone wrong? Why wasn't Lewis at the spot where he promised to meet Hoffman and Hemp? Little did the members of the raiding party realize that, directly in front of them in the think under–brush, lay the moonshiners, waiting for them. It was late afternoon. The date was Wednesday, July 24, 1929.

The day was Wednesday, July 24, 1929. The time, 5:50 P.M. A raiding party was in process in the Catoctin Mountains just west of Thurmont Md. Deputies from the Frederick County Sheriff's Department had gathered in the neighborhood of what was known as "Blue Blaze." The area was isolated, very remote and almost inaccessible.

The officers, in attempting to creep upon the scene of the still they were about to raid, found the going somewhat rough because of the thick under brush. Their well-laid plans for the raid were going well, except that Charles Lewis did not show up at the site where he promised to meet John Hemp and Leslie Hoffman to escort them to the still where they would purchase a jug of whiskey.

After waiting a short period of time, thinking that Lewis would show up, the raiding party ascended a narrow winding mountain path, moving as quietly as possible so as not to give their presence away to the moonshiners. That small path lee abruptly to the scene of the still. Bordering the still, lying in wit, were the bootleggers, well hidden by the thick under brush.

Deputies Varner Redmond and Clyde Hauver, leading the raiding party, were first to step into the camp. Just as they did without any warning, they were met with a rain of pistol bullets, fired from ambush to the rear of them.

It was reported that one of the very first shots fired, struck Hauver and he fell mortally wounded. The officers immediately returned fire and began to drive the bootlegging gang over an embankment. In the exchange of fire, one of Deputy Redmond's bullets hit the hand of Charles Lewis.

it was during the first exchange of shots that Redmond and Hauver received the brunt of it Under the circumstances, it was virtually impossible for the raiding party to concentrate their return fire on any given subject. They did what was the logical thing to do, fire in the general direction from where the moonshiners shots came from. The moonshiners began to retreat under heavy fire, but the officers followed in close pursuit. Because of the thick under brush it was just impossible for the deputies to keep in close pursuit. They could not get close enough to shoot or even apprehend any of the law- breakers. The bullet that struck Hauver was fired from the rear and the other deputies at first, did not realize what had happened. They thought that Hauver had tripped over some of the under brush.

Upon discovering that Hauver had been shot, a member of the raiding party notified Dr. Morris L. Birely of Thurmont an an ambulance was summond. The injured Hauver was rushed to Frederick City Hospital. In an effort to save Hauver's life, a State Police officer, John Taylor, volunteered to give blood for a transfusion, but this proved to be of no avail. deputy Sheriff, Clyde L. Hauver, age 30, died that evening at about 8 0'clock.

It was after the officers of the raiding party discovered that Hauver was shot, that they sent word for assistance. Rushing to the scene from Frederick were Sgt. Cassidy and officers Cubbage and Taylor of the Maryland State Police. Allen McHenry, Jesse Schell and William Miller of the Frederick City Police Department also responded to the call for help.

After the excitement cooled down, the raiding party completed their task. Using axes and picks, they demolished and destroyed all of the equipment at the still.

Following Hauver death, State's Attorney, William, M. Storm requested an autopsy. The bullet, removed from Hauver's brain was a 45 caliber and was turned over to the authorities to be used as evidence.

All that Wednesday evening, sixty-four years ago, the officers were busy trying to track down every possible suspect. Officers in nearby towns in Maryland and Pennsylvania were informed to keep a lookout for the moonshiners who had escaped from the Blue Blazes Still during the raid.

Even though the still was located in the wilderness, almost inaccessible, except on foot, hundreds of curious citizens of Thurmont and surrounding areas as well as from Frederick, went to the scene of the still and many stayed until late in the night.

One thing for sure, the Blue Blazes Still would not be operating in the morning, nor for sometime to come. With the dawn July 25th. came some startling news.

On Thursday morning, July 25, 1929, the day following the big raid on the Blue Blazes Still, it was learned that six men were being held in the Frederick County jail pending a full investigation of the murder of Clyde Hauver. The capture of these men came as quite a surprise to the area folks, coming so soon after the raid.

Two of the men were arrested at the scene of the raid during the night and four were taken into custody in Hagerstown early Thursday morning.

Those being held in the Frederick County jail were Lloyd Williams, Russell Clark, Paul Williams, Oscar McAfee, Lloyd Lewis and William (monk) Miller, the alleged owner of the Blue Blazes still.

As mentioned earlier, Lewis had been hit in the hand by a bullet from Deputy Redmond's gun. The injury must have been rather serious for Lewis decided to go to the doctor to have it dressed. Dr. Kohler refused to treat Lewis until he learned how he was shot.

At this point, Lewis revealed his identity and stated that he had been wounded during a raid on a still in the Catoctin Mountains. After treating Lewis, Dr. Kohler immediately notified the authorities and Lewis was arrested soon after. Oscar McAfee was taken into custody at the home of his brother, not far from the scene of the still.

As the investigation continue , it was learned that the officers made it known that they were Quite convinced that they had the man in custody who had fired the fatal show that hit Rawer.

In the days that followed the authorities were busy gathering statements from the prisoners. From one of the statements gathered , it was learned that the bullet that struck Clyde Hauver was indeed intended for Deputy 'Redmond. The man suspected of this was alleged to have stated several times that he intended to "bump Redmond; off."

Further investigation revealed the name of the owner of the Blue Blazes still and the connection of the three Hagerstown men with it. We cannot overlook the fact that the raid on the Blur Blazes still and the murder of Clyde Hauver, had a very :deep effect upon the mountain folk as well as the citizens of Frederick County. Deputy Hauver was well liked in Frederick City and throughout the county.

In the early days of the investigation, had it been known which of the six men in custody fired that fatal shot, it was believed that a lynching party might have taken place.

As a result of the raid on Blue Blazes still, operators of other stills in the Catoctin Mountains became very a cautious of their operations. They were very careful in their conversations, for fear that their still would be the next one to be raided.

In the meantime, the excitement of the raid died down and the citizens of Frederick County sat back to await the announcement of the trial of the individual accused of killing Deputy Clyde Hauver.

As the investigation of the killing came to a close, a date was set for the trial. Details of that trial are not very clear, but after checking into the court records, this writer learned that one man was sent to prison and served a period of time.

Last Saturday, July 24, 1993 marked the 64th anniversary of the raid on Blue Blazes still in the Catoctin Mountains just west of Thurmont. Although moonshining in the Catoctin Mountains no longer exists, the topic still finds its way into conversation among those who are still living and remember that fateful day, 64 years ago.

It was in the spring of 1935, six years after the raid on Blue Blazes still, that the mountaineers in the Catoctin Mountains began to notice strangers in their midst. Tongues were wagging. The mountaineers, like the citizens of Thurmont, viewed the situation with extreme caution and alarm.

There were stills in the mountains but none were as large at the Blue Blazes still that was raided in July of 1929. The mountain folk began to squawk and complained that the strangers were "the infernal revenuers, plotting another raid."

The mountaineers weren't about to end their illegal distilling of alcohol and bootlegging operations. Taking no chances, they began to move their stills further up the mountain stream, concealed by the thick under brush.

I recall very clearly, learning in the summer of 1935, just who those "strangers" really were. They were Federal land appraisers, who had moved into the area to begin work on what was to be known as the "CATOCTIN PROJECT." As mentioned earlier, the mountaineers were taking no chances. On several occasions the Federal appraisers were ordered off the mountain at gun-point. The smoke behind these stories left little or no doubt in one's mind, that they came from the mountaineers who were very much involved in moonshining operations.

Whether these mountaineers were reconciled or not, the land appraisers were from the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. They had come to Thurmont to begin work on the "CATOCTIN PROJECT" and they were determined to see it through, mountaineers or no mountaineers.

On-site work on the "Catoctin Project" got underway on January 2, 1936. Through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), it gave work to many citizens in and around the Thurmont area.

Back in those days, Maryland Route 77 was nothing but a graded dirt or gravel road for most of its length. The early maps of the area showed what is today Park Central Road, as a mere mountain trail. This trail was rebuilt and has become the main road through the Catoctin Mountain Park. The general development plans called for the construction of organized youth camps.

By the spring of 1936 a Central Service Group or Maintenance Unit was under construction. The site chosen for the Service Group was the old farm of Roy E. Lewis, located just off the county road which area citizens today know as Manahan Road.

One of the very first programs of President Roosevelt's "New Deal" was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In 1939 the Central Service Group was selected at the site for the very first CCC camp.

Modified to include a technical service building and dormitories, this camp site functioned up until World War II. The many trails in Catoctin Mountain Park today were built by the CCC. With the coming of World War II, the camp was considered to be obsolete and the Central Service area was then turned over to the military under a special use permit.

Many years later, this very same area was picked for the site of the very first Job Corps Center to be established in the nation. This group used many of the buildings of the old CCC camp.

As the area developed, the "Catoctin Project" became known as the Catoctin Mountain Park. Frank Mentzer, then Superintendent of Catoctin Mountain Park loved the area and was always looking for ideas that would promote the park and attract tourists and visitors to the area. Frank, during his term as Superintendent of the park, contributed much to the park as we know it today.

It was in 1968, when Frank Mentzer came up with the idea of having whiskey making demonstrations in the park to show the visitors just how the mountaineers made their moonshine many years ago, when their stills were hidden deep in the laurel-covered coves of the Catoctin Mountains.

Naturally, to set up the demonstrations, a still would be required. Frank Mentzer knew the Catoctin Mountains well and he knew just where he wanted to set up his whiskey making demonstrations. It sounded like a crazy idea, making whiskey on government property. Such a project hardly seemed possible, but Frank presented the idea to the proper authorities for approval.

Not far from the Visitor Center on Park Central Road was the site of the original Blue Blazes still. This still in its day was considered to be the largest one ever operated in the Catoctin Mountains. It was here that Mentzer planned to held his demonstrations ... that is if the authorities approved of his idea.

Mentzer's idea was approved and in 1969, after a long search for the necessary equipment, his still was set up and demonstrations were held during summer weekends. It was a far cry from the old Blue Blazes still, but it served its purpose for which it was intended ... for demonstrations only.

Yes, it was a crazy idea at first and Frank Mentzer wasn't one to give up without a try. The idea was approved but to operate the still a special permit was needed. Park record show that the first such permit was issued on December 29, 1969.

With the coming of spring 1970, the new Blue Blazes still was in operation in Catoctin Mountain Park. In fact, it was the very first still ever to be operated on government property. And Frank Mentzer didn't care who knew it and above all, he had no fear of revenuers making a raid on his still.

In the 23 years that have followed, moonshining demonstrations have remained an important part of the park program. Each year thousands of visitors, attracted to the beautiful Catoctin Mountain Park, have visited the whiskey making demonstrations at the site of the old Blue Blazes still.

Although the whiskey produced as a result of the demonstrations is neither consumed or sold, but disposed of, the Blue Blazes still and its operations are very unique indeed.

Today, Blue Blazes still in Catoctin Mountain Park serves but one purpose ... that is to remind the visitor to the site of what life was like on Catoctin Mountain many, many years go.

Read other history article by George Wireman

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