Once home to almost ninety licensed distilleries and many saloons, by 1911 Virginia’s Franklin County, in the heart of Appalachia, had been reduced to a single liquor business operated by Richard Flemming Rakes. After Rakes was forced to close in 1916 by the forces of prohibition, the county swiftly gained a reputation as “The Moonshine Capital of the World,” a name in which it glorifies today.
During the Civil War, the federal government was not around in most parts of the South, including Southwestern Virginia, to collect excise taxes on whiskey. Moreover, Confederate governments were not strict on taxing liquor. As a result wildcat stills proliferated in remote mountain areas of the Commonwealth. During Reconstruction, at the direction of President Ulysses S. Grant, the Commissioner of Revenue sent raiders into Virginia with orders to wipe out illegal stills and force distilleries to register and be licensed so that governments could regulate and tax them.
Although the move fostered intense resentment in Franklin County and other parts of rural Virginia, it succeeded. By 1893 some eighty-seven county distilleries had registered and bought state licenses. Most of these were small farm-based operations, making brandy from fruit and whiskey from grain. At same time, however, prohibitionary forces in Virginia were actively seeking to shut down these same facilities.
A member of the large Rakes clan spread over Southwest Virginia, Richard was born in Patrick County, about 85 miles south of Rocky Mount, in July 1874. His parents were Alexander, a farmer, and Annie Turner Rakes, who died when he was eleven. Little of Rake’s early life has made the public record. The 1880 census found him in Patrick County at age five, living with his parents and three brothers and two sisters. By 1900 he had relocated to Rocky Mount and was living in a boarding house while working as a storekeeper. One account has him married to a Debra Turner; if accurate, it apparently was a short-lived arrangement. By February 1902, according to more complete records, he was married to Rochelle Arminda (called “Minnie” all her life) Wood. The couple would have four children.
Rakes early on had determined that making and selling whiskey was a lucrative occupation. He established a distillery outside of Rocky Mount on the banks of Shooting Creek. Shown here, it was a craggy, winding waterway that ran several miles from a spring at the top of a mountain down to a rocky and muddy road below. It provided pristine mountain water to Rakes’ still through a homemade pipeline extending from the creek to a flat space where he built his facility. His plant may have looked something like the Franklin County still shown below.
A licensed and tax-paying distiller, Rake specialized in making sweet mash corn whiskey. Likely it was bottled just as it came out of the still, a clear liquid rated at 100 proof, that is, 50 percent alcohol. He likely bottled it for sale in a back room of his Rocky Mount saloon. In 1903 he had purchased this drinking establishment, known as the Opera House Saloon, from B. B. Dillard who ran a liquor store in nearby Roanoke. [See my post on Dillard, March 6, 2015.]
Unlike many other Franklin County distillers who used ceramic jugs for their whiskey, Rakes fancied glass for his whiskey. Shown below are several photos of his jugs. Note that they came in gallon containers of a least two designs. One had a single handle, another featured two. As shown left, some bottles apparently also came with a cradle that allowed a purchaser to fill a glass with less chance of spilling.
One constant on Rakes’ bottles was their embossed labels. Clearly aimed at a mail order trade, they advertised his sweet mash corn whiskey at the price of $2.00 per gallon. Because embossing cost somewhat more than a paper label, distillers were careful to order only as many as they knew they could sell. As a result, today R.F. Rakes jugs are considered relatively rare and recently have sold at auction from $600 to $900 each.
During the first decade of the 20th Century, “dry” forces gradually were eradicating all legal whiskey production in Franklin County. While still officially “wet” as a state, Virginia had passed “local option” laws that allowed government units as small as villages and townships to outlaw the making and selling of liquor within their boundaries. As a result, by 1911 Rakes in Rocky Mount was had the only working distillery and his drinking establishment, as one author has expressed it, was “literally the last chance saloon.”
As he grew wealthy over ensuing years, Rakes bought up a large amount of farm land in Franklin County. He also built a spacious Colonial Revival-style house on the outskirts of Rocky Mount, situated on acreage that included one of the county’s most cherished historical sites, a crumbling blockhouse named for Robert Hill, an early settler. Dating from the 1740s, the fort was built to protect settlers from Indian raids. The house, shown here still standing, became a home for Rakes, wife Minnie and their children.
The Rake family was soon to be riven by sorrow with the death of Minnie in October 1915, leaving Richard with four small children to raise, one of them — son Richard Flemming Rakes Jr. — just over one year old. By 1918 Richard married again, this time to Ethel Pluepott. They would have one daughter, Dixie, who died in 1920 when she was two years old.
Meanwhile, Virginia in 1916 passed a statewide ban on the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages. Rakes was forced to shut down his Shooting Creek distillery and the Opera House Saloon. By this time one of the richest men in Franklin County, he turned his attention to farming his extensive lands and other pursuits. Ever the entrepreneur, he bought a site along the Pigg River and created a recreational area known as the Rakes Picnic Pavilion. He also captured a spring on the property and built a small structure over the water source that became known locally as Cement Spring. The area is shown here as it looks today. He also bought an automobile dealership, selling Chevrolets from a building in Rocky Mount still known as the Rakes Building.
While Richard Rakes was pursuing legitimate enterprises, however, hundreds of Franklin County residents, including some of his cousins, were taking advantage of the demand for illegal liquor to take up bootlegging on a major basis — earning the county the title “Moonshine Capital of the World.” Moonshine meant cash for impoverished area farmers despite the fact that powerful political figures and urban gangsters exploited them for the lion’s share of the illegal profits.
During Prohibition, federal revenue agents in Franklin County destroyed 3,909 stills, made 1,669 arrests, and seized 130,717 gallons of booze. The conflict over moonshine led to a major conspiracy trial in 1935. Eighty illicit distillers, government officials, a sheriff, police officers and others were indicted for evading $5.5 million in excise taxes —equivalent to about $95 million today. During the trial, two hundred locals testified. One key witness was gunned down on a country road; a Rakes was among the suspected killers but no one was ever charged. In the end 31 people were convicted, but none of the kingpins. Jail sentences were laughably short and fines light. Bootlegging in Franklin County continued almost undeterred.
From his vantage as a legitimate businessman, Rakes must have looked at Franklin County moonshining with mixed emotions. Although he had made his corn whiskey in the sunshine of a license and paid his taxes, some of his relatives were neck deep in bootlegging. Many of the illicit stills employed the fresh spring water of Shooting Creek just as he had done. Rakes died on March 13, 1941, the cause given as a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 67 years old. He lies buried in the Alexander Ingram Cemetery, shown here, in the Franklin County village of Ferrum.
Richard Rakes lived long enough to witness the end of National Prohibition in 1934 and the brief rebirth of a scattering of legitimate local distilleries, rapidly driven from business by competition from national liquor producers. Rakes died too early, however, to know that Franklin County would capitalize on its bootlegging notoriety as way to attract tourists, proudly labeling itself today as “The Moonshine Capital of the World.”