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Namesake: Revenue Hill in Great Smoky Mountains

1:08 PM, Apr 15, 2011   |    comments
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The twists and turns known as "The Tail of the Dragon" on U.S. 129 attract hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders to Blount County every year.

At one of the switchback curves near Calderwood, a summit is visible in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The slope is not accessible from the paved road anymore, but it once played a part in the long-time regional battle between the local mountain people and the government agents who sought to destroy their illegal liquor-making operations.

"The people who lived in those areas of the mountains made moonshine," said Allen R. Coggins, a historical research author who wrote the book Place Names of the Smokies.  "Of course, from the government's standpoint, liquor needed to be taxed.  That started back as early as the 1790's when [Alexander] Hamilton proposed what was enacted as a 'sin tax' on whiskey."

Government agents known as "revenuers" raided illegal moonshine operations throughout the Great Smoky Mountains and East Tennessee.  However, moonshine wasn't something locals only brewed to make a buck.

"A lot of people were making it for personal use and they made it for friends," said Coggins.  "Even people who were Teetotalers used moonshine as medicine. They would mix it with honey or something like that and use it as a medication. There were not very good anesthetics back then, so if you had a broken bone or a bullet wound you could use moonshine and not feel guilty about it."

Coggins said many moonshiners in the mid-19th Century did not begin distilling liquor with the intention of making a profit.

"Word would get around that so-and-so made good moonshine and other people would offer to buy it."  Coggins added, "This isolation of the mountains also drove many people to make moonshine because of the burden of taking crops to markets in Knoxville or Asheville, North Carolina.  Corn was a very heavy crop and you had to take corn a long way to get money for it.  Therefore, a lot of mountain people decided they could increase their profits by liquefying it."

Coggins said the rugged terrain and isolation of the Appalachian Mountains also made it easier to conceal liquor-making activities.

"The isolation was good because it kind of kept the revenuers out. The main thing revenuers could look for is the tell-tale smoke coming out of the peaks and valleys from someone operating a moonshine still.  That is why people would often make their moonshine at night; hence the term 'moonshine' referring to the fact they made it by the light of the moon."

As for Revenue Hill, Coggins said the historical archives do not explain exactly what happened between the moonshiners and the revenuers to give this specific location its moniker.

"We do not know absolutely for sure. On some place names, you will never know.  There are also several spots that may have been known as 'revenue hill' at one time or another.  That is why you cannot decide if this specific hill got the name because it is where there was moonshining being hidden from revenuers.  It could have been the site of a large moonshine bust by the revenuers.  Another possibility is that this was an area that was used by the revenuers to scout the area.  The revenuers could have stationed themselves here to look for smoke around the mountains because this was a high point to view the area.  Those are all explanations for various places with this name, but we just don't know which one applies in this case."

While the exact explanation may be lost forever, what is clear is the name Revenue Hill came from the fight with the "Tax Man" over the mountain people's liquid assets.

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Note: Namesake is the renamed title of the series formerly known as 'Why do they call it that?'

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