Rabun County’s Most Celebrated Moonshiner: Drinking as a Toddler, Kegs of Corn Likker, Dead Snakes and Judicial Imbibing

His daughter recalled a late-night visit from the sheriff when she was a little girl. “Sit on these quilts,” her father ordered, “and don’t move!” The child obediently sat on the quilt and never moved when the sheriff walked through her room. Hidden under the quilt were Mason jars filled with daddy’s hard work.


Daddy was Simmie Free, Rabun County’s most celebrated moonshiner. Born in 1892, he was a descendant of the county’s Scots-Irish settlers, who brought their whiskey-making skills to America from Ireland. With this alcohol-centric background in his DNA, Simmie spent his life as a master distiller…and imbiber…of illicit corn likker.


Drinking as a Toddler

An impish little man with bright, twinkling eyes, he claimed he was introduced to moonshine at a very early age. In the 1980 book More Mountain Spirits, Simmie recalled, “My daddy said they went to given corn whiskey to me when I was shore enough young, just a toddler, when they couldn’t give me but one drop of sweetened likker. It wuddn’t long until I got to where I could take two drops, then it wuddn’t but a day or two ‘til I got to where I could take a half a teaspoonful.” Continuing his journey into the wonderful world of imbibing, he said, “Then it wuddn’t long to where I could take a bottle and take a drink. I knew how to handle it. Didn’t never get drunk. I could carry it all day. I’d go so far and quit.” However, he confessed that whenever he went to Clayton to visit friends, he typically was “half lit.”


As a child, Simmie recalled that his father always kept a 10-gallon keg “just sittin’ right in what they called the kitchen, out just as open as could be. But all of his kids knowed not to tech it…If we drank any likker, we waited ‘till he give it to us…When kin folk would come in, he’d put a bottle or a jug on the table and pour ‘em out a glass.”


Learned Moonshining at Daddy’s Knee

Simmie, whose schooling ended after the second grade, learned to make corn whiskey at the knee of his father. “I went to helpin’ my daddy make likker when I wuddn’t but nine years old. My daddy just let me go to the still with him, and I watched him and learnt it myself…We made it out of corn meal, rye and nothin’ else…Me and my daddy usta tote it (kegs of whiskey) through the woods from here to Clayton, about seven and a half miles. I’d tote a little three-gallon keg and he’d take a five-gallon keg. Go through the woods and tote it to a man (the buyer in Clayton) and then get only a dollar a gallon.”


During the Depression years of the 1930s, moonshining was an economic necessity for many in Rabun County, since there was no other way to make money. Simmie recalled moonshining “was the only thing that saved us…Back then you couldn’t get work to do. If you could get work with a man on a farm, you’d put in 10 hours, even it was down in a ditch, ten hours for a dollar. Maybe 12 hours. Sunup to sundown. So, when you got a dollar for a gallon of whiskey, that was big money. Big money.” Those few dollars were used for buying staples people could not produce themselves. “You’d buy sugar and coffee and that was somethin’ you couldn’t hardly get. You couldn’t find it. Even flour, when you could get some, you could only get a pound at a time. Had to eat cornbread three times a day. We’d mix it up with sorghum molasses.”


Simmie was not bashful when it came to extolling the quality of his whiskey. “I got the record of makin’ the best they is in the state of Georgia.” But making the best was no easy task. “Making likker, that’s hard work. It’s worsn’ hard. I’d pick up a hundred pounds of sugar and go two miles and a half, way back across a mountain and put it in (his still) and make likker and then get a 10-gallon keg full of likker, put it on my shoulder and tote it from here to Clayton.” He did the same thing with corn. “I’d pick up two bushels of corn meal at a time on my shoulder. Weighed 96 pounds. If I was goin’ up a long mountain, I’d just throw it down and rest, then pick it up and go on.”


Stuff Would Kill a Snake

He lamented, “People don’t make pure corn (whiskey anymore). They don’t make nothin’ right no more…the stuff they make it out of, hell, it’d kill a snake, it’d kill a dead snake.” He was right. By the 1950s, moonshiners were stretching their output with additives like embalming fluid, formaldehyde and bleach. Cases of blindness and even death resulted from drinking chemically-laced whiskey.


Simmie was no stranger to jails. “I been caught and served four sentences in jail. I didn’t care. I wanted to see the world, anyhow. Went down there once (to the penitentiary) and stayed two months and 15 days, come right back home, and if I didn’t have a still, I’d have another made and have it (corn meal) in the furnace (of his still) the next day.”


On another occasion, federal revenue agents (the “revenuers” of moonshine lore) found one of Simmie’s stills, cut it up and gave him the pieces of copper from the apparatus. “Well, I’ll sell that copper for junk and buy me another half pint of whiskey,” he told the agents. “And that’s what I done with it. Went to court and pled guilty and come clear. I told the truth all the way through. You can’t lie out of nothin’. I don’t believe in it. I’d rather serve time as to tell a lie.” Then there was the time Simmie was jailed in Gainesville for eight months. “I could come home on leave to see my wife, and I’d make some whiskey and take it back to Gainesville to sell it.” He was nothing if not resourceful.


Judge Becomes Simmie’s Customer

A judge that sent Simmie to the slammer for moonshining had no compunction about buying gallons of whiskey from him. “Give a drink to the judge and all. But they like for theirs’ to be slipped around to ‘um. They don’t want it in the open…the one that sent me to the penitentiary, boy, he’d drink it with me. I’d take him a gallon at a time. I liked him because he’d drink with me.” Apparently, the wheels of justice in Rabun County were lubricated with Simmie’s corn likker.


By the time Simmie was 82, he was stricken with arthritis that made it difficult for him to walk. “Here I am 82 and half years old. Still drinkin’ corn whiskey. The only thing that’s kept me alive. Only thing. I’d been dead 15 year, 20 year ago, hadn’t been for that. It’s better than any medicine a doctor ever had…I do better when I got it than when I ain’t got it.”


Simmie Free passed away in Rabun County at 88. Perhaps he was right. A lifetime of distilling and drinking corn likker may well have kept the old moonshiner going for close to nine decades. Who can argue with longevity?


This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in June 2024.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.