Listen: Big Shed/CDS Audio Documentary “The Great Moonshine Conspiracy”

Sawmill at John Wade’s place in Sydnorsville in Franklin County, Virginia. Photograph Courtesy Blue Ridge Institute and Museum of Ferrum College, Franklin County Bicentennial Collection.

In his 2011 book Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World (University of Illinois Press), Charlie Thompson chronicles Virginia’s Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935, which made national news and exposed the far-reaching and pervasive tendrils of Appalachia’s local moonshine economy.

The folks at the audio and media production company Big Shed used Thompson’s scholarship as a resource for their recent audio documentary: The Great Moonshine Conspiracy, produced in collaboration with the Center for Documentary Studies. Go to to listen and for more information.

The Great Moonshine Conspiracy is set in Franklin County, Virginia, once called “The Moonshine Capital of the World.” For struggling hillside farmers, moonshine was a path out of poverty. For powerful men, it was an opportunity to get rich on the backs of those farmers. In the most mountainous parts of the county, nearly every farming family was involved in the making and selling of illegal whiskey. In 1935, over two hundred farmers testified about their role in the massive racket resulting in the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial.

Charlie Thompson is director of the undergraduate program at the Center for Documentary Studies; he holds the faculty position of Lecturer in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion.

Big Shed is Jesse Dukes, Jennifer Deer, and Shea Shackelford. Big Shed and the Center for Documentary Studies are partnering this summer to offer a Continuing Education course, Digging In: A Documentary Retreat with Big Shed. The retreat brings together documentary makers and storytellers of all stripes for a productive, invigorating, and rejuvenating week of digging deep and making meaningful progress on your individual projects from July 29 to August 4.

The Great Moonshine Conspiracy aired on WUNC’s (91.5 FM) The Story with Dick Gordon on July 16 and is being licensed to other public radio stations. 

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