Monthly Archives: September 2018

Making Appalachian Applejack

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 64-66:

The still sat on a flat bald stretching about fifty feet across the side of the mountain. Devil Anse used a sixty-gallon boiler that he had bought from the owner of a steamer on the Big Sandy. The deal had taken place at dusk one evening near Louisa, Kentucky. They rolled the heavy boiler onto a flatboat, covered it with a tarp, and disguised it with barrels. Then Devil Anse and three men—possibly his sons, and possibly Big Jim, Randall’s son, who worked for Devil Anse making moonshine (though it is hard to know for sure since the business was clandestine)—had poled it up the river. Finally, it, like everything else, had been lugged the mile up the creek to the bald on a corn sled—a wooden crate on runners for hauling corn out of sloped, rocky fields. They cut a door in the bottom of the boiler and placed it on a big square slab of sandstone that was balanced with rocks underneath its corners.

Devil Anse and his sons built a dry stone wall around the still with a roof of split boards over it. They left a hole in the wall to allow them to reach in and build a fire beneath the sandstone slab. Fresh ice-cold water was funneled to the operation via wooden troughs from an uphill spring. The wood they needed for making buckets and barrels and for fires was plentiful around the bald. All they had to haul up was the main ingredient. When they were making apple brandy, or applejack, Devil Anse’s specialty, they needed three hundred bushels for a large batch, and lugging those apples up to the still on the corn sled was a major task. Up top, the men took turns mashing the apples a bushel at a time in a solid tub, using the butt of a small buckeye tree. They shoveled the apple pulp into 125-gallon vats and stirred in water to create what looked like a thin applesauce. They made about 1,300 gallons of apple mash at a time and then let it sit for ten days while it soured.

On the eleventh day, they began filling the still with the fermented apple mash. The cap was screwed onto the still, and the worm—a copper coil—onto the cap. They built an intense but low-smoke hickory-wood fire beneath the stone. By heating the stone instead of directly heating the boiler, they never burned the mash. Once the stone and still were hot, it took just a small fire to keep the batch at a low boil, just right for making moonshine. Alcohol vaporizes at 173 degrees F, and they kept it as close to that temperature as possible to avoid scalding it.

As steam rose from the simmering mash, it passed through the copper coil, which ran through a wooden barrel filled with cold spring water, and condensed. The resulting liquid trickled out into a wooden bucket. Each full bucket was emptied into a barrel. As long as the stream of liquid coming from the barrel tasted like brandy, they kept it coming, usually for about four hours. Once it got watery, they snuffed the fire, emptied the still through the door in the bottom, and started over again. This way they made six singlings—the amount of whiskey from a full still—in a twenty-four-hour period. Each singling amounted to about ten gallons. It was intense work, and when it was finished, they were only halfway there; a man could get very drunk and very sick off singlings, but this was not the product they were after.

Once enough singlings were collected to fill the still twice, the men gave the still a thorough cleaning, then filled it with the singlings and lit the fire; the steam ran through the worm and was condensed again, this time producing an even purer whiskey, the doublings. It was about 98 percent pure alcohol. Around ten gallons were produced before it began to weaken. Then the men put the fire out, topped off the remaining liquid with more singlings, and lit the fire again.

In this way, six gallons of mash produced a gallon of singlings, and a hundred and twenty gallons of singlings yielded forty gallons of top-quality Hatfield applejack.

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What Sparked the Feud, 1878

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 49-50:

By July 1866, Congress had reduced the army to a peacetime level of just over 54,000 men. By 1876, the number had dropped by half again, to 27,000. That year, America’s centennial celebration took a blow when the news hit the week before the Fourth of July that General George Custer had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of two thousand Lakota and Cheyenne, under Sitting Bull, in the Montana Territory. Custer had been dispatched to open the Black Hills to gold prospectors, which the Indians, whose land it now was, hotly opposed, and to make a statement that would hit newspaper front pages from coast to coast during the presidential political conventions. Instead, Custer’s Last Stand shocked the nation.

The disputed election of Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, a former Union general, to the presidency that fall resulted in a compromise with the Democrats that ended Reconstruction and the federal occupation of the South. Army forces were shifted to the West to fight Indians and police the frontier. As America rebuilt, laid rails, and expanded, the Indians would be pushed onto smaller and more marginal reservations in the West, and the blacks, now free but left to their own devices, would be oppressed and persecuted in the South. In southern Appalachia, the isolated hill people would be conned out of their land by wealthy northeastern industrial interests, which, as the railroads opened up the region to mass extraction, swooped in and snatched up coal and timber rights before the locals had any idea what they were worth. In little more than a decade, the industrialists would wrest almost complete economic and political control of the region from the people who lived there.

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT the Hatfield-McCoy feud found a new spark at this juncture in history, as the strictures and safeguards of the Reconstruction era suddenly vanished. What does come as a surprise is that amid the high-risk and often turbulent work of the timbering industry, with its unbridled inebriation and rowdiness of unleashed mountain men on payday, it was a rather prosaic dispute over livestock that ignited the tinderbox of the feud.

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Appalachian Timber Boom, 1870s

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 43-45, 47:

With the South eagerly rebuilding after four years of bitter destruction, timber was in great demand, and the Tug River Valley had it in spades. Indeed, there was not only a seemingly inexhaustible expanse of timber, but also an easy way to transport it: logs could be floated down brooks, streams, and rivers—the Levisa and Tug forks of the Big Sandy and the Guyandotte River in West Virginia—to sawmills on the Ohio River, and from there the lumber could be shipped around the nation.

Giant tulip trees—native only to the East Coast and China and, at two hundred feet, North America’s tallest trees—blossomed in spring, catching sunlight in brilliant lanterns. The mountain men, who called them yellow poplars, put them to the ripsaw and ax. They also felled and floated other hardwoods—steely hickories, dense elms, and sprawling walnuts—on westward rafts. Sawmills on the Ohio hummed, turning these trees into the lumber that was building America. At the international Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the state of West Virginia would proudly display at its much-visited exhibit samples of its wide array of commercial lumber: from cedar, spruce, and white walnut to chestnut, sugar maple, white ash, and black cherry.

To construct a raft of logs, the loggers floated or sledded their timber to a cofferdam in a river bend. There they interspersed floaters—logs of lighter wood, like poplar, chestnut, basswood, or sometimes pine—with those of the denser ash, oak, hemlock, hickory, maple, or walnut to keep them buoyant. Once the logs were in line, they fastened oak or hickory binders to the ends with hardwood pegs. Over time, metal chain dogs, wedge-shaped steel points joined together by short chains, replaced the wooden pegs. Then the men attached rigging made from ropes or grapevines.

A timber merchant could harvest land he owned, or he could buy trees for a dollar apiece, or two dollars for an especially good specimen (though the most prized wood, walnut, cost up to ten dollars per tree). The price of the labor to fell the trees, peel them—all logs were floated to the mills without their bark—haul them to a waterway, build the raft, and then float it to the mill was a dollar a day per man.

High-quality poplar brought sixteen cents a cube (twelve inches in length by eighteen in diameter). Oak and sycamore and many other species brought in ten to twelve cents. Top walnut went from twenty cents to a dollar a cube. Walnut was so valuable that men would go back and dig up the stumps to sell for veneer.

Those selling timber had their tricks, sometimes concealing rotten cores with solid pegs. Logs with bad knots or holes were locked into rafts with the blemishes facing down to avoid detection. Buyers had their own stratagems: some were known to squeeze their calipers together when measuring logs to trim an inch here and there, which, when compounded across a raft, added up.

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Ransom Values of Christians c. 1810

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 147-149:

As Riley was about to discover, a Christian’s value as a ransomable commodity depended on his rank, wealth, health, and location. On the desert, where a tent with a life of four years was worth a camel, and a camel was worth a dozen goats or half a dozen sheep, a Christian’s worth fell somewhere between a tattered blanket and an adult camel, except in rare circumstances. Officers were worth more than seamen, though the Arabs, desperate for practical skills, would hold indefinitely a gunpowder maker, a surgeon, or a smith who naively admitted it. Married men brought more than single men for their perceived added wealth. The Arabs quickly noticed a man’s fine accoutrements. Brisson, who had lavished watches, silver buckles, and money on his first captor to ingratiate himself, was sold from one owner to another for five camels, while the ship’s baker went for one. Ultimately, Brisson regretted the gifts, which served only to inflate his ransom price.

To ransom a Christian, a Sahrawi had to deliver him to the imperial port of Swearah, where foreign merchants or consuls could make the payment. To get there, they had to cross the desert, past hostile bedouin tribes, past the fortified Berber towns of the Souss region, and finally past the operatives of the Sultan of Morocco, where Christian slavery was technically illegal and the sultan was fond of the “gifts” Western nations paid for their citizens’ freedom. All the while, the captor had no guarantee he would actually receive the agreed-upon sum. Instead of making the long, risky journey, a Sahrawi often sold his slave locally at a small but sure profit to a buyer who would sell at a small profit to another buyer.

In this way, in an agonizing peristalsis, the Sahara slowly yielded Christians north one territory at a time, the nearer to Swearah the higher the price, with the medium of exchange switching from bartered goods to cash at Wednoon, on the edge of the desert. On the Sahara, the French merchant Saugnier was traded once for a barrel of meal and a nine-foot bar of iron, and later for two young camels. He was sold twice at Wednoon, first for $150, then for $180. Seamen with him brought $50 to $95. Robert Adams of the Charles went in the latter range, once for $50 worth of blankets and dates and a second time for $70 worth of blankets, dates, and gunpowder.

In 1810, the English merchant and author James Grey Jackson proposed paying a fixed rate for Westerners delivered to Mogadore. “A trifling sum would be sufficient,” he maintained, if it was always on hand and the policy well known. This would eliminate the uncertainty that led to the repeated reselling of Christians and extortionate ransom prices. Jackson estimated that $150 per man would be enough, “a sum rather above the price of a black slave.” The British adopted the practice to the south at Saint-Louis, on the Senegal River, where in 1816 the speedy recovery of some of the passengers of the Méduse proved its soundness, but no such standards existed for Christians being transported north.

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Origin of Camelids

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 127-128:

The nomads owed much to the Arabian camel. By the time their Sanhaja ancestors had acquired the peculiar humped beasts from the east—between the first and fourth centuries A.D.—desertification had long since intensified, clustering people around oases, where they could grow food. As the land grew more arid and infertile, the black tribes migrated south, while the Sanhaja adapted to nomadic life with the camels, living like bedouins long before the first wave of bedouins arrived. Though not considered ruminants, camels, with their complex, three-compartmented stomachs, regurgitate and rechew their forage, turning poor vegetation into protein and energy even better than ruminants do. It was the camel, which could convert scrub brush into nutrient-rich milk, that allowed the Sanhaja to stay on the desert.

Oddly enough, camelids originated not in Africa but in North America. During the Pleistocene epoch, the ancestors of the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco migrated south to South America, while the ancestors of the camel crossed an erstwhile land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait to Asia. As the camelids were dying out in North America, camels migrated across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. By 3000 B.C., however, wild camels had become extinct in North Africa too. They were reintroduced on the Sahara as desertification increased their utility there, and they quickly became the most important thing a man could own. He who mastered the camel mastered the land.

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Harshness of the Sahara

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 94-95:

What they looked out on, in 1815, had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the western edge of the world’s largest desert. Occupying a third of Africa, it stretches more than three thousand miles east to the Red Sea and twelve hundred miles from the Sahel—the fringe of savanna in the south—to the Atlas Mountains in the north, mountains that snare almost all the moisture traveling down on the northeast winds. Relative-humidity levels, rarely above an abrasive 30 percent, are often as low as a lethal 5 percent, dry enough to kill bacteria and mummify corpses. On the coast, the heat of the Sahara clashes with the cold waters of the Atlantic, often creating heavy fogbanks that envelop the shore, and on many days the irifi, a powerful, searing wind, shrouds the region in a melancholy ocher veil of dust.

The Sahara was not always like this. From 5500 to 2500 B.C., it was relatively fertile, wet and inviting. Up until Roman times, antelope, elephants, rhinoceroses, and giraffes roamed a savanna densely studded with acacia, while crocodiles and hippopotamuses wallowed in lush rivers. Ostriches, gazelles, and antelope still persisted in 1815, but by then the Saharan climate was arguably the most extreme on earth. Its temperature could sizzle at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the ground temperature soaring 50 degrees higher in the sun; at night, the thermometer could plunge as much as 85 degrees. These conditions, combined with frequent windstorms and less than five inches of average annual rainfall, made sustained life virtually impossible in many parts. As flora and fauna died off or adapted, the land itself deteriorated. While only about a tenth of the Sahara is covered in barren sand dunes, or erg, almost equally formidable are its stepped plains of wind-stripped rock covered in boulders, stones, and dust—the lower elevations generally known as reg and higher ones as hammada.

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Stages of Dehydration

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 77-78:

It is said that to a thirsty man in a boat, sea spray is a constant torment. It taunts him in its plentitude. It beads on his brow and runs down into his mouth, only to make him thirstier. Inevitably, some of the crew began to crack. A couple of them indulged their increasing fascination with death by leaning over the gunwale and submerging their heads, claiming that they wished to taste what was sure to be their fate.

The stages of dehydration would be categorized a century later by W. J. McGee, a notable amateur thirst-researcher and director of the St. Louis Public Museum. His portrait of the process of human dehydration, which has become the sine qua non of the field, shows five distinct phases: clamorous, cotton-mouth, swollen-tongue, shriveled-tongue, and blood-sweat, each roughly equivalent to a 5 percent decrease in body weight. The Commerces [sailors from the shipwrecked Commerce] had long since grown clamorous: uncomfortable, irritable, feverish. Their stale throats cracked when they spoke. Their fat, sore tongues restricted conversation to terse phrases, and they slurred or lost words. Their hearing had grown muffled, due to loss of moisture in the inner ear. In the cotton-mouth stage, the mind increasingly distorts reality and desires. Sufferers rashly toss off clothes or possessions or, in the case of the Commerces, become obsessed with how it would feel to die in the sea. It is normal for spells of feverish dreams to focus on the urge to drink, and the Commerces, parched beyond imagination and penetrated by salt, extolled the lush banks of the Connecticut River and craved a cup—or a barrel—of the delicious mineral water from the freshets that filled it. In his head, Riley built and rebuilt the stately spa he had dreamed of.

That afternoon, Riley gave up any hope of a rescue at sea. To continue on meant certain death, roasting on the woeful collection of planks that formed their boat, now an inhuman prison cell that confined their bodies in cramped agony. They might fight on another handful of days, but they did not have enough food and water to maintain their strength. They would soon lose the power to affect their fate.

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