Rickey Estes -- 'Born to Moonshine'

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Ricky Estes describes his moonshine making days to the members of the Auburntown Historical Society during a meeting of the society. Looking on is member Joe Davenport. (Photo by Donna Nichols)

Recent guest speaker for the Auburntown Historical Society (AHS) was Rickey Estes of the Woodland Community. He was born in 1948 to Will and Limmer Lee Estes of Big Hill area in Short Mountain. In addition to owning a moonshine still, his dad drove a 1946 school bus for Mud College School and later Short Mountain Elementary when consolidated in 1955. Will was a farmer, worked at the Eugene Reed Sawmill and laid water pipe line for various townships. Limmer Lee Estes was employed by Colonial Shirt Factory. She and Will Estes had six children: Alene Ferrell, James, Doris, Jimmy, and Ricky Estes and Judy Alexander.

Ricky Estes is living history of generational moonshine manufacture in Cannon County. Estes' English is a mixture of mountain dialect with a slight speech impediment. But this doesn't slow him down from sharing amazing accounts of his early moonshining days and escapades with law enforcement. While AHS does not condone illegal manufacture of moonshine, Estes' life experiences are historic as well as entertaining.

"I got my first barrel when I was eleven years old," said Estes. Wooden barrels were used by his father in their moonshine operation. This is also the age he got his first of five cars before the age of 18. The vehicle was a 1941 Chevy purchased from Frank Hibdon, a local store owner. Estes maintained a trading association with Hibdon who supplied sugar used in making moonshine. Just in case there was a law man hanging around, large amounts of sugar were disguised in feed sacks for hauling to a moonshine still. Listening to Estes talk, one understands he has a keen mind with vivid recall.

One of Estes' many tales of his moonshine making days, involves a night when he was around age 14. This was during the years McBride Cooper was sheriff. Estes' brothers Jimmy and Doris along with their father Will, were returning from Statesville, TN, after purchasing a moonshine still. Jimmy Estes was transporting the copper still pot in his 1957 Mercury with the car trunk tied down. Ricky Estes, his dad and brother Doris followed in a 1956 Ford. Packed in his trunk was the condenser, steam line and thumper pieces of the still.

In those days, Auburntown was the place to be on Saturday night and the town was full of people as they approached the Auburntown bridge. Just then, the 1957 Mercury carrying the large moonshine still, hit an asphalt bump which caused the trunk tie string to break. They whizzed through Auburntown with the car's back end wide open and the still in full view. Immediately, Estes saw a short guy wearing a gun and holster perched in front of the Bank of Auburn. (This individual was later thought to be game warden Taylor Willard.)

A high-speed chase ensued on Highway 145 racing towards Woodbury. The chaser car was lost by the Estes crew after topping Auburn/Woodbury Hill. But as soon as they drove past a ballgame crowd at Woodbury High School, Sherriff McBride Cooper and a deputy car quickly picked-up the chase. Some how they got away. Ricky claims his car's front dashboard had fingernail indentions left from where his dad and brother held on for dear life during their clandestine ride from Statesville.

Ricky Estes was apprehended a couple times for making moonshine by federal revenue agents after McBride Cooper finished his term as sheriff (1958-1964). It was then McBride began working with what is now known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Agency. McBride was Involved with Estes arrests, but McBride may have once saved his life. According to Estes, the revenuer was holding a cocked pistol to his head when McBride demanded, "Don't shoot that boy, I know him!" Estes never spent a night in jail and only received 90 days probation, plus assessment of court cost and liquor tax.

Early homesteaders in Tennessee brought the craft of making whiskey from their country of origin such as the British Isles or Germany. The Scots-Irish were also famous for their old liquor recipes brought from Scotland, Ireland and England. For sure, many folks populating the hollers and hillsides of Cannon County made their own "brew" with some form of a distillery. Everlasting springs with a fresh supply of water throughout the area was a necessity of life. This natural resource was readily available to make moonshine for family, friends, and gatherings.

Moonshining is a term used only after the making of alcoholic beverages became illegal by a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of liquor from 1920 to 1933. During this 13-year Prohibition period, people continued to make alcohol, "By the light of the moon.... thus Moonshine."

Estes was an ingenuous entrepreneur running moonshine by night and working for legitimate businesses in daytime. At age 15, he was helping build a horse barn for Donald Paschal when he got caught as being under age and had to go home. Mack Finley helped him obtain working papers so he could return to work. By the age of 19, he had operated a Texaco Gas Station, worked for Eugene Reed building houses and as a painter in Murfreesboro. His adult work history includes driving a milk truck for the Woodbury Cheese Plant, hauling propane gas and driving a fleet of busses. Additionally, he has driven a bread truck for Bunny Bread for the past 36 years.

Estes married Bonnie Taylor in February 1968. They have two adult children, Jeff, who married Tracy Hayes and Michael, who married Janele Reed, all from Cannon County. They have a couple of grandchildren and one great-grandson, Carson Jeffery Reed.

A kind-hearted fellow, Ricky Estes is a Cannon County icon who will share his unique personal history to all who care to listen. The next meeting of the AHS is scheduled for August 16th at 7:00 pm at the Church of Christ Fellowship Hall in Auburntown.

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