Author explores moonshine’s role in the survival of northcentral Pa. towns

LOCK HAVEN – Moonshine is known by many names in many regions of the Appalachian Mountains. Its history is a mixed-bag of mountain folklore, broken families and political gain.

The home-cooked spirit didn’t just supply communities with a liquid good time. In some places, such as right here in northcentral Pennsylvania, it brought income in to dwindling farms and kept food on the table for families in outlying rural areas.

Bruce Teeple, a historian and writer from Penns Valley, spoke to about 20 people who gathered April 12 at Annie Halenbake Ross Library. The talk was part of an educational speaker series held at the library in conjunction with the yearlong celebration of Clinton County’s 175th anniversary.

At the talk, Teeple read excerpts from his soon-to-be-finished book, “As Good as a Handshake: The Farringtons and the Political Culture of Moonshine in Central Pennsylvania.”

Teeple said the infamous Prince Farrington, a bootlegger from North Carolina, and his family came to Clinton and Lycoming counties not only to set up stills to make liquor but to create a flow of income for those in need.

The author has been researching and writing this book for almost nine years and dived into heavy research at the area’s courthouses and, most importantly, by interviewing the people of the area.

“It’s not a biography, of such (of Farrington). If anything, it’s a biography of Pennsylvania and the people of this area and what they had to do to survive,” Teeple said after his talk.

He looked at what was going on during the time the Farringtons came to the area, and why the bootlegger and his counterparts became involved in such a lucrative livelihood.

The book looks beyond what Teeple said are the repeated “robin hood” stories and into politics of the region, how moonshine and prohibition affected the area.

The political culture of moonshine was about bribery, or the trade of favors, he said. Those who were running things at the time may not always have been “straight arrows.”

People of certain offices or higher ranked positions often eyed others with a “what can you do for me” attitude, he said.

Teeple said there are stories that Farrington was pumping out an enormous quantity, and quality, of bourbon to political people in the area and all the way to Harrisburg.

Beyond the desks and offices of mayors and police chiefs, the farms and families in the rural areas knew they, too, could benefit from the slow flow of ‘shine from a still.

Moonshine helped people here survive, Teeple said.

“People believed in a shared sense of honor. Blood is thicker than water,” he added.

Whether it was a small favor or larger job, Teeple said people in tight-knit communities such as Sugar Valley, which includes the small town of Loganton in Clinton County, knew how to stay tight-lipped.

When Farrington arrived, World War I had ended and the economy was bottomed out. So the bootlegger persuaded broke farmers to switch over to growing corn, which he used to make his ‘shine. Teeple said Farrington would pay them top dollar for the crop, which they weren’t getting from the market. Farmers weren’t receiving any help from the government to stay afloat either.

“He was helping them out. I don’t see any other bootlegger in this country having that kind of reputation,” he said.

He discussed the famous Florida Fruit Farm, a still site in Rosencrans, an area north of Loganton. A very large site, it had become famous through the media at the time. The “fruit arm” was a promise of income for the people of Sugar Valley.

People in central Pennsylvania already knew what it was to be a good neighbor, or “nachbar,” the word used by those who were descendants of the German Dutch, Teeple said. He said the Pennsylvania Germans also used the word as a verb.

“This is what Prince knew right away. He was part of the extended Appalachian family and (knew) the culture and how being a good neighbor is central to all human activity,” Teeple said. “That’s why if a politician is going to be successful, he has to be a good neighbor.”

Farrington long has been associated with repeated “robin hood” stories. As part of his book, Teeple said, he hopes find the real “whys” behind them.

“I have gone to the courthouse and gone through the records. I want to know why, not just how, these things are happening,” Teeple said.

“Take those stories with a grain of salt, but there is more to those stories. Everyone remembers them, but it’s a surival story and it’s just to me so much of what central Pennsylvania is all about,” he said.

Teeple said the book explores many other subjects.

“There is the rise of the middle class, and that is all they were striving for. They all wanted a piece of the pie,” he said.

The message he hopes the book transcends is about the people here.

“The strength and tenacity of this region’s people only improves the understanding of the past,” Teeple said.