When I was growing up on my grandparents’ ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota, one of our favorite hikes was to what everybody referred to as “the moonshiner’s cabin”. Being teetotalers of the highest order, the older generation was deliberately vague about just what a moonshiner was, and it was many years before I understood the ramifications of what that phrase meant.
As kids we were just thrilled by what seemed to us an ancient log cabin in complete decrepitude, which had apparently been abandoned in a hurry, because even after several decades there were still personal effects to be investigated.
By design the cabin was situated in a remote location, even by the standards of our isolated ranch-house at the end of a long and poorly maintained dirt road. In fact there were no roads at all in this remote corner of the Black Hills National Forest. There were, however, thick stands of Ponderosa pine trees – ample fuel for the wood-burning stove which no doubt burned round the clock, back in the day.
It wasn’t a dug-out, but it was very low-slung, just one room, and not exactly built to last. It had presumably served as temporary shelter until the revenuers closed in, and then the unknown occupants had moved on. I have black and white pictures of some of our jaunts to the cabin, the roof already disintegrating, and remember pilfering some of the rusted Prince Albert tobacco tins, which for some reason appealed to me as a kid.
It didn’t occur to me to ask who these people were, or why they were apparently seeking such extreme privacy. After all, my grandparents too craved seclusion, and the rare arrival of visitors was always the occasion for great excitement. A car engine could be heard for miles in the serene mountain air, thus heightening the anticipation of visitors from the outside.
It wasn’t until much later, when I began delving into Black Hills history on my own, that I first heard the phrase “valley of a thousand smokes” and made the connection with our mysterious moonshiner’s cabin. The valley with the picturesque name was some distance from our ranch, but the function was the same: filling a demand by the public which was legally denied (in the twenties) and after prohibition, a source of much-needed income for destitute victims of the dust bowl.
Today the valley is filled with the largest reservoir in the Black Hills, named Pactola for one of three towns now under its waters. But for years it was known locally as the “Valley of a Thousand Smokes” because of the smoke rising from moonshine stills set up in every draw. You hear a lot more about the stills than you do about any successful busts, and I have a gut feeling that not too much energy was expended on enforcing the law. After all, the Black Hills are a mountain range (yes, that’s right: mountains. They were misnamed too long ago to be corrected now) comprising about two and half million acres, and the Black Hills National Forest occupies about one and half million acres of it. That’s a lot of heavily wooded, rocky, unpopulated territory to patrol.
Probably best left well enough alone!