Over the course of two centuries, and several generations, possibly even more…the Jackson family took moonshine making to a whole new level, turning it into an art form, one might say, taking pride in their creation and therefore producing some of the finest whiskey that could ever be found here in the South. Ab Jackson followed in his ancestors’ footsteps by continuing this family tradition, becoming a master of sorts by placing his personal stamp of perfection on each and every handcrafted bottle. The man could shake a bottle of whiskey and tell you what proof it was just by studying the contents. Anytime the word moonshine is mentioned in Clay County, you will most likely hear the Jackson name. With law enforcement, a mention of Ab’s name usually brings on a smile, or sometimes even a small laugh, soon followed by their own personal tales of this most amusing character.
Ab took on the face of many names over the decades: farmer, husband, father, convict, businessman, good Samaritan, but the one he always seemed to wear the best was simply “friend”. If you are ever passing through Millerville and take the time to stop at Jackson’s Grocery, you can mention the name “Ab Jackson” to anyone who walks through those doors and they only had kind words to speak of him. This also included law enforcement, as crazy as that may seem. His life story played out much like a real life Dukes of Hazard theme, one of which he always seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else. Now, as Ab’s years on this Earth grow scarce, as is his memories, his story needs to be told…
Ab was born in 1936, son of Alvin and Ada Jackson, and one of three boys. He was raised on a farm where hard work was a part of everyday life. From early to sundown, these boys performed back-breaking chores that would seem inhumane to children these days. Ab’s grandfather, William Jackson, began passing his whiskey making skills on to his sons by the age of just ten. When Ab was 15, he was able to make moonshine completely on his own to help support the family, although farming continued to take precedence. Ab would buy his first mule for the sum of $20.00 by saving his break money over time of just a nickel a day. Moonshining and farming were not only considered work to him, but also a hobby. If he wasn’t doing one, he was doing the other. His strong work ethic was always one to be admired.
On his deathbed, Ab’s grandfather made his grandsons promise him they would always make good whiskey, a promise they would more than honor over the next few decades. After his grandfather passed, Ab and his brothers kept up the farm and continued making moonshine to make ends meet.
When Ab set his eyes on Jo Davidson, he knew she was the one for him. So, he pursued her with everything he had and won her heart. They married shortly afterwards and enjoyed a happy life together. Their union would produce six children, three sons: Frankie, Dee, Alan and three daughters: Martha, Sandra, and Margie. Farming and moonshine were the primary sources of income for this family, and they never went hungry. His youngest son, Dee, can remember helping out around the stills as early as 5 years old. He can never remember them living in one place for more than a few months while growing up, their frequent moves were always brought on whenever the law would get hot on his father’s trail because there was always a still nearby.
One very interesting fact you might know about Ab before the story goes much further is that he never consumed any of his own whiskey. His explanation for this was always “It ain’t made for drinking, it’s made to sell.” And he would also caution his customers about drinking too much, saying, “My liquor won’t hurt you, but it will make you hurt yourself.”
Of course, it was bound to happen eventually. In the early 60’s, despite Ab moving his stills around frequently in the deepest of the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Clay County woods, he was arrested and taken into custody. The judge handed down a sentence of three years in the state penitentiary. Ab was irate over this judgement and cursed the judge saying, “Damn, Judge, why couldn’t you just have given me two years?” The judge looked down at him and said “Maybe this will teach you to stop making moonshine.” Ab’s reply was simply, “I ain’t gonna stop making it until my toes turn up.” He would serve 17 months of this sentence.
The second time Ab was incarcerated was in the mid 60’s. He was bonded out of jail by a couple of friends but was given a sentence of two years. Fearful of going back to jail, Ab packed up his family, skipped bond and headed to California. They would spend several months in the sunny state, before Ab was able to save enough money to make the trip home. The law got wind that Ab was back in town almost immediately and came to search his house. Ab hid in the loft and caught an officer quite by surprise with a loaded shotgun. Ab quietly told the officer to yell down to tell them the attic was clear, which he did with no resistance. It is unsure why the officer never told the others he had located Ab’s hiding spot, but after what they thought was a thorough search, they left the premises. The very next day, Ab packed up his family and went back to California for three months, before he just decided it was time to do the right thing. So they headed back to Alabama, and Ab turned himself in to serve out his time. He was sent to Atmore State Penitentiary, where he would serve just one year of his sentence before he was released early for being a model prisoner.
Life went back to normal for the Jacksons and although he had learned a few lessons from his imprisonment, he continued to make moonshine, but was much more careful this time around. Making moonshine was hard work, but it was bred into his blood. Ab was a small-framed man, but could tackle a workload of men twice his size in record time with more stamina than anyone could ever imagine. He would even cut the enormous amount of firewood needed for his mash with a small handsaw. His sons said he moved at the speed of a beaver while performing this task.
After the mixture was prepared, it would take 3-4 days for the process to complete, so Ab would just leave the still during this time, always setting up some type of markers to see if the still had been discovered. Because an arrest could not be made unless someone was found at the still, Ab might become suspicious if his markers were not in place. One method he would use for markers was placing small sticks standing straight up in the ground around the perimeter of the still to see if anyone had been on the grounds.
The secret to Ab’s whiskey was a rye recipe, and his stills were known for their flawlessness and immaculate craftsmanship. The filtration system he used was the best and as a result, his liquor had a smooth taste and was as clear as water. Ab took great pride in having the best whiskey around. He had people come as far as New York, Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee, and California just to get a batch of the legendary moonshine. Some would buy as many as 15 gallons to last them awhile because they said it was the best they had ever tasted. Ab even sold his whiskey to Hank Williams Sr.
Eldest son, Frankie, was only nine years old when he began helping his father at the still. He can recall getting up as early as 2:00 am to begin toting large bags of sugar, gas bottles and flour for several miles round trip to isolated wooded areas. Frankie was just 12 years old when he got caught with a mule and wagon loaded down with 52 gallons of whiskey. He said the thing he remembered the most was one of the ABC agents coming out of the woods singing “The Old Gray Mare Ain’t What She Used to Be.” They handcuffed him and made him drive the wagon home, and his mother was livid when she saw her young son in handcuffs. He was taken to the courthouse for mug shots. He was released back into his father’s custody, but only after Ab paid a stiff penalty because his son was a juvenile.
During the late 60’s-early 70’s, ABC (Alabama Beverage Control) began to keep close tabs on Ab’s activities, which kept them very busy. Former ABC agent Terry “Tiny” Turner spent many days and nights staking out Ab’s place and searching for his stills. He had several interesting stories to tell. One night while watching the Jackson homestead, he heard the couple arguing loudly from inside the home. After a few minutes, he saw Ab emerge from the front door swearing loudly, where he proceeded to pick up all of the porch furniture and throw them off to work out his frustration. Turner said this was clearly not a violent situation, just more amusing than anything. “There I was crouched down, hiding in the bushes trying to contain my laughter.”
On another occasion, Turner said they had found a still in the woods one day that had Ab’s signature mark written all over it because of his flawless technique. Because an arrest could not be made unless a person was actually caught making the moonshine at the still, he and his partner decided to come back the next day to see if they could catch him in the act. Much to their surprise, when they came back the next day, the entire still was gone, with not so much as a scrap of evidence left. Apparently, Ab had somehow figured out they had found the still and spent most of the night dismantling it, a huge chore for less than 24 hours. “He must have worked all the way through the night cleaning that still out, it was as if it never even existed,” said Turner laughing “The joke was on us.”
Another memorable moment for Turner and his crew was when they had a search warrant in hand for Ab, which had to be personally handed to him. They found him down at Hatchett Creek, where the water level had risen due to heavy rains. Ab must have heard them approaching, so he quickly jumped in his boat, and drove it to a sandbar where they could not reach him. Try as they might, they could not persuade him to come to them. “He was all but dancing on the other side, saying “Whatcha gonna do now?” said Turner smiling “ He was always very sharp and swift.” They left with the search warrant still in hand. They would find out later he had 50 gallons of whiskey in his house at this time, but since they weren’t able to actually serve the warrant, there wasn’t anything they could do.
Truthfully though, Ab was not the hardened criminal some people may have thought him to be. Matter of fact, there wasn’t a law enforcement employee that disliked Ab. “I just can’t say anything bad about Ab” said Turner, “He was one of the best friends I ever had, just an excellent man and I thought the world of him. I was responsible for putting him in the state penitentiary three times, and he never gave me one minute of trouble. He remained my friend to this day, the best-hearted man I’ve ever seen on that side of the law. When you got some of Ab’s liquor, you got a prize, some of the cleanest liquor anywhere around.” Ab always told me “You’re doing your job and I’m doing mine.”
Although Ab could be an excellent friend to anyone, you did not want to betray his trust because this is where he drew the line. This was even more so true with family members. One time, Ab had hired one of cousins to help on the farm and with the stills. This cousin got angry with Ab for some particular reason and decided to turn Ab in. As a result of his actions, Ab decided to teach him a lesson when he got out of jail. He lured the cousin to him under false pretenses and set his revenge plan into motion. Somehow, Ab ended up holding this cousin, John, hostage by restraining him with logging chains on a huge bed of hay in his barn for three days. Dee remembers this well because he was the one who had to take his meals to him. After a couple of days of being imprisoned, it was really getting to him. On this day, as Dee and Ab walked out ready to work in the fields, John yelled out to Ab from the barn as he was climbing up on the tractor “ Ab, you sonuva….., if you don’t let me go, I’m gonna burn this barn to the ground by the time you get back!” Ab stopped the tractor, stood up and reached deep in his overall pockets until he fished out a box of matches and proceeded to throw them to his hostage, then jumped back on his tractor and left. Dee seemed concerned so he asked his father “Daddy, aren’t you afraid he’s gonna do it?” Ab just looked at his son and smiled saying “Son, he ain’t gonna burn himself up.” And Ab was right. After three days of captivity, Ab turned his cousin loose, and he was never bothered again.
As time went on, it turned into more of a cat and mouse game between Ab and law enforcement, and the heat was on him more than ever to the point of harassment. Ab grew tired of not being able to even make a trip into town without being pulled over and searched. It was one of these times that Ab decided another lesson was needed in order to be left alone. So, he took everything out of his trunk and lined it with a bed of pine straw. He then caught him two big rattlesnakes and placed him in the pine straw. To set them up a little further, he took several glass jugs and filled them with water so they would actually think he was hauling whiskey. True enough, it wasn’t long before he was pulled over again and was searched. When the deputy asked Ab if he had anything in the trunk, Ab answered honestly telling him he had nothing but water back there. Not satisfied with this answer, the officer opened the trunk, saw the jug and reached for it thinking this time they had caught him with the goods. Needless to say, he was more than a little shocked and surprised when a big rattler struck at him, thankfully, missing its mark. The trunk was closed quickly and for a long time, Ab was left in peace in his travels.
Ab also had a love for his 5-gallon glass jugs, which not only held his liquor, but also served as decoration around his house. When one particular raid didn’t produce any whiskey, law enforcement confiscated several of these jugs, not to mention several 50 lb bags of sugar. Their reasoning was they knew Ab was going to use these items to make whiskey. The Sheriff promised they would return his jugs to him after the proper paperwork was done. When this wasn’t done in a timely manner, Ab paid the Sheriff a visit with a gun in his pocket and demanded they return his beloved jugs. Rumor has it Ab even pulled a gun on this Sheriff, although this was never confirmed.
One late night when Ab was out and about, a deputy decided to pull him over and this particular night with moonshine in custody, Ab was having none of it. This high-speed chase that ensued was no contest because it took place on a back road that Ab was only well too familiar with, and unfortunately, the deputy was not. The deputy ended up running his car off the road, flipping it several times. Now, Ab was free to get away, but being the person he was, he was actually concerned about the deputy’s well-being. So, he turned around and went back to check on him, which by then was covered with other law enforcement. The driver was injured, though not seriously, probably mostly with pride. Officers didn’t think too highly of Ab’s act of kindness and took him in custody. He was arrested, but bonded out the same night. The very next day, Ab paid a visit to the Sheriff’s Office, with a twenty five-pound bag of flour thrown over his shoulder. He told the Sheriff that anybody who would risk their own life by chasing him must really be hungry. So, he then tossed the bag of flour onto the Sheriff’s desk and left.
Hoping to eliminate some competition, a fellow bootlegger paid a visit to Ab’s place one time on the pretense of making a purchase, with an officer hidden in the trunk of his car . But Ab’s instincts told him something was not quite right, so he asked this person if there was anyone in his trunk. Although the man swore no one was in there, he still refused to open it. Ab told him if he had someone in that trunk, he was going to throw them in his well. Defeated, the man left.
Another humorous recollection by son, Dee, came when the law enforcement was crouched down outside Ab’s home in hiding one time and Dee’s little dog walked up to the officer, sniffed of him, then raised his leg and let nature take its course on the officer’s pants.
Ab’s demeanor in the courtroom showed a different side of him. He was known to lose his temper quite frequently when provoked, through yelling, throwing things, initiating fights, which would result in further contempt charges at times. At one time, he got so angry with the Judge, he grabbed the gavel from his hand and shook it at him. Son, Dee recalls him getting angry at a Judge one time and slapping him because he said the Judge lied. He was given seven days in jail on contempt of court charges, which they let him serve on weekends, so he could take care of his gardening. The very next week, he took the Judge a bushel of peas because outside the courtroom, he was buddies with most of them. They knew Ab was never a real threat to anyone.
He never had any legal representation in the courtroom, he always chose to defend himself and was successful on several occasions for beating charges going this route. He beat a case one time when he asked the Sheriff to describe the exact location of the still in question. So, the sheriff proceeded to explain in great detail where he had discovered the still. After the Sheriff had finished with his explanation, Ab turned to him and said, “Well, Sheriff, since it sounds like you knew exactly where you were going, it must have been your still.” The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
As stated before, Ab was hard to catch, but once he was caught, he offered no resistance of any kind. He always complied with the law in every fashion. Because he was never resistant, many times local law enforcement would just pay him a cordial visit, or phone call to tell him they had a warrant for him and he would go to town and sign it. In the mid 70’s, he was caught once again by ABC. The agents simply raided the still quietly telling Ab they were going to have to take him in. Ab asked them if he could finish making the mash and they allowed him to since they knew he wasn’t going to run. Of course the mash was confiscated, but that’s just the way Ab was. He liked to complete things. ABC agents were so impressed with Ab’s impeccable method of moonshine preparation, they took his still and set it up for display in the Montgomery Office.
A funny thing to note is that Ab received a visit from the Internal Revenue Service one day, not surprisingly since the main reason for moonshine making to be illegal was because of tax purposes anyway. These IRS agents proceeded to inform Ab that according to their calculations of all the whiskey he had concocted and had been confiscated, that he owed them several thousand dollars. Ab just sit there thoughtfully for a minute and finally told them he would be more than glad to pay this amount only IF they could return this whiskey to him that had been seized which the agent knew was impossible. Since there was little explanation the IRS could give, they left…without any money and they never paid him another visit.
Ab was never one to be still. He was one of the hardest working men you would ever meet. When he wasn’t making moonshine, he was farming. This was a big part of how he helped people. If he heard there was a family in need, he would take them fresh vegetables. If someone was sick or having any kind of financial hardship, he would pay their utility bills, buy them groceries or give them money. As far as the moonshine went, many people would use the whiskey mixed with peppermint for medicine. So, if anyone ever knocked on Ab’s door at any hour of the night needing “medicine”, he would give it to them free of charge. Son Dee remembers this well because he said he spent many nights pouring up the mixture in quart jars for anyone in need. “Truth be known, Daddy probably gave away more whiskey than he sold,” said Dee.
Because his liquor was considered “the best,” his customers were plentiful. He sold to many upstanding citizens of Clay County: politicians, judges, council members, commissioners, and mayors. Ab even sold to many law enforcement personnel, some off-duty and some not. He was even known to bring his whiskey in mason jars to employees at the Sheriff Department. He was teased by many of his friends about his profits, saying that he was making that “Rocking Chair” money. This reference meaning after the work was done, he would sit back in his rocking chair and just watch the money roll in. As the years rolled by, his warrants were handled in an even more civil fashion, most of the time he was called by phone and told he had a pending warrant and he would just go up and there and sign it. Since he had such a sharp mind, he decided to go into business for himself, owning both convenience stores in Millerville for some time. Ab also wore the title of “Mayor of Millerville” of sorts, although there was no such position. A close friend of his Dan Endress always told everyone Ab was the most level-headed person alive because that snuff ran out both sides of his mouth evenly. Although, Ab did not drink or smoke, he did enjoy a good dip of snuff.
Ab had a frequent visitor in award-winning photographer Ken Elkins, probably better known as simply “Picture Taker.” Elkins’ work was made famous by having a knack for catching “just the right” pictures of rural life. You could find Elkins on many Saturdays hanging around the store, or in the fields with Ab with his camera in tow. He found Ab to be a fascinating person and always swore he was going to write his life story one day. Elkins won several awards with his pictures of Ab, some with his mule working. You can find these pictures of Ab, and many others from Elkins for sale in a museum in his honor called “Picture Taker” in the Quintard Mall. You can also find information on the some of the Jackson family run-ins with ABC in a book titled “Moonshine Memories” by former ABC agent Tom Allison.
Ab has been tracked by bloodhounds and was known to outrun law officers by foot. There were times, he would climb trees, throw rocks at the dogs, and even swim the river to get away from them. One time when he and some family members were being chased on foot, one of them was not in as good physical condition as the rest were, so he literally passed out from the physical exertion. Concerned about the fallen friend, they took the time to cover him with pine tops since he was out cold and came back later to fetch him. No one got caught on that day either. He has been arrested or had dealings with over four (4) decades of Sheriffs in Clay County, most of which would “conveniently” catch him near election time. Clay County Commissioner and former Lineville Police Chief Wayne Watts recalls a time when he was campaigning for Sheriff some 20 years ago and ran into Ab. Watts handed Ab a campaign card and asked for his vote. Ab said “ Well, I’m not gonna vote for you, you’d probably catch me.”
Sons said their father was an excellent provider for his family. They said Ab didn’t have to make moonshine, he did it because it was a habit that he truly enjoyed. Whether because he enjoyed the tranquility of being in the woods alone, or just from knowing he was making the best product he capable of, it was an addiction to him. Frankie still has the last gallon of liquor their father ever poured up. They are very proud of him of the heritage their father passes on, despite the arrests, and jail time because they know their father was doing everything he could to provide for his family. “He was a good-hearted person who taught us so much, what hard work was, how to be successful in business matters, farming, helping others and even how to make moonshine.” Son, Dee, even runs the same store, Jackson’s Grocery, that his father once owned. He has even contemplated teaching his own son, age 3 now, the “family recipe” just to preserve the Jackson heritage.
Ab is 76 years old now and is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. I had the honor of speaking with Mr. Jackson just a couple of months ago in his home, shortly before his care began to require too much and his family was forced to place him in a nursing home. Although his memory failed him on many questions, he would still have temporary moments of clarity. He spoke only nice things about his bride of 52 years, Jo, and even teased a bit about how she would never let him have a girlfriend. He could recall a few brushes with the law, although with no details. When I asked him if he made good liquor, he said “Well, if you’re gonna make it, might as well be the best.” He even offered to pay my power bill.
Ab still resides in the nursing home, with the biggest part of his memory gone. Every now and then, you will catch him singing the gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away”, or make some reference to making moonshine like he is still doing it in his mind. Jo remains attentively by his side in his final days, tending to his needs. She was never bothered by any of Ab’s adventures, she knew he made moonshine from the very beginning. She has stood by his side faithfully throughout the years because she knew at the end of the day she had married a good man. In fact, she fought for him on several occasions. She summed it all up with his statement: “Me and Ab never did smoke or drink, but we sure done our part in raising a lot of Hell.”
Who knows how far the Jackson liquor could have gone, had it reached the right person? A reference was once made in a local newspaper his whiskey was better than Jack Daniels. One thing’s for sure, his legacy will long live past his years on Earth and that’s all anyone could ever hope for. We all have our own unique talents in life and they should all be developed to the best of our ability. So, whether you agree with Ab’s lifestyle or not, he proved that being successful in all aspects of life doesn’t always mean having an unblemished background. He will forever be remembered for not only his whiskey, but also for his compassion and generosity shown towards others.
Footnote: This story was written in 2011. Ab has since passed away.
- Photo credits: First photo by Ken Elkins – Picturetaker; all others provided by the family.
Editor’s note: this story also appeared in the Clay Times-Journal in Lineville, Alabama.