Thursday, April 10, 2014

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A Knoxville Legend, Revealed: The Truth About Thunder Road


This month marks the 60th anniversary of the notorious Thunder Road crash on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, for which the famous ballad by Robert Mitchum was named. It also marks the passing of Edward "Eddie" Harvey, a former racecar driver and whiskey car mechanic, who died on Monday, April 7th, 2014, at age 91. 

I had the privilege of interviewing Eddie in 2008, when I was in journalism school, for an assignment about Thunder Road. Nearly six years and hundreds of interviews later, he remains one of the most interesting people I've ever encountered. The story he contributed to is below; I will be posting the full contents of my interview with him later. 

John Fitzgerald and his buddies coasted on their bicycles into the parking lot of Mr. Galyon's service station, like many mornings, in search of a Moon Pie or a Nehi soda. But this morning, April 1, 1954, was different. A cluster of unmarked cars and suited men, their faces red and their bodies flitting nervously from car to car, hemmed the normally desolate country store.

Suddenly embarrassed by his bicycle, the sixteen-year-old quipped to his friends that the official-looking man, tall and pot-bellied, sipping on a Grapette soda, should have bought an RC Cola instead. He sobered, however, when he heard the men whispering about Thunder Road. That cool spring morning, John and his friends had inadvertently stumbled upon a federal operation to capture a notorious Kentucky moonshiner known only as "Tweedle-o-twill." 
Let me tell the story, I can tell it all | About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol | His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load | When his engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road
"Thunder Road" was the code name assigned to the undercover federal operation to nab moonshiners, but to locals like John, its meaning was no secret. In the Appalachian foothills, Thunder Road was a term coined to identify the nighttime route from Harlan, Kentucky, to Knoxville, Tennessee, traveled by illegal whiskey haulers. The source of many a southern legend, it was this route that spawned Robert Mitchum's 1958 Hollywood hit Thunder Road and his song "The Ballad of Thunder Road." But to the men who traveled the route, it was much more than legend. It was the road to freedom from economic despair.

Early 17th-century European immigrants to the United States brought their knowledge of distilling with them, and in the hills of the Appalachians, where freshwater and farmland were plentiful, moonshining proved to be a profitable venture. Isolated mountaineers fashioned makeshift stills to convert their crops to whiskey to trade at market. Eventually, moonshine spoke as loudly as cash, and so the moonshine culture was born. 
On the first of April, nineteen fifty-four | A federal man sent word he'd better make his run no more | He said two hundred agents were coverin' the state | Whichever road he tried to take, they'd get him sure as fate
In the early morning hours, just down the pike from Galyon's, Tweedle-o-twill, the son of an elusive mountain moonshiner, was racing against time. As the sun peaked through the trees, he rocketed down the highway, sweeping across the last leg of his journey down Route 33 from Kentucky through Maynardville and into Bearden. His misty green 1950 Ford was loaded with 'shine, likely concealed by nothing more than a blanket, and daylight was dangerous.

Once outside of Knoxville, he had the choice of an old truck route, today known as Papermill Road, or the public highway, Kingston Pike. The two roads converged past the crest of Bearden Hill, creating a stretch of highway with no through-roads, where the federal agents planned to surround the illustrious whiskey hauler. 

But at a rate as high as $40 a run, little could stop a determined driver like Tweedle-o-twill.

"Farmers were compelled to find money somewhere," Alex Gabbard, author of Return to Thunder Road, said. "There was no place to get cash money except whiskey. So you had makers and watchers and haulers and moonshiners and bootleggers. This moonshine culture was an early form of sharing the wealth."

Economic necessity drove Ed Harvey, 86, owner of Eddie's Auto Shop on Broadway, to enter the moonshining underworld. Somewhat of a local legend for his appearances on the Real LeRoy Mercer tapes and Johnny Knoxville's MTV show Jackass, Harvey first earned his larger-than-life reputation as a whiskey car mechanic. 

Growing up, he watched his grandfather manufacture whiskey at his four-story Union County distillery, when alcohol was legal in neighboring Kentucky, but still banned in Tennessee under Prohibition in the 1930s. Although Harvey's grandfather had a license to produce and sell whiskey to the U.S. government, he also had another source of under-the-table income. 

"I asked Grandpa, 'How come you so rich? You got three buggies and six horses.' He said, 'The wagons come at night,'" Harvey recalled. "They'd come in there from Kentucky every night, stuffed with cases and cases of whiskey. I told him I was going to be rich that way."

In Harvey's teenage years, when hard times hit after his father left, aiding moonshiners seemed an obvious choice. 

"One of the biggest reasons they all did it was these were poor people," Jaymie Frederick, Harvey's niece, said. "Ed's mother would take her children to work at Kay's Ice Cream and throw ice cream out the window so they would have food. You did what you had to do."
Sometimes into Asheville, sometimes Memphis town | The revenoors chased him, but they couldn't run him down | Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode | He'd go by like they were standin' still on Thunder Road
Around the bend from Kingston Pike's Mount Vernon Motel, today occupied by World Futon, the federal agents devise a makeshift roadblock, two cars nudged nose-to-nose across the two-lane highway. They parked their fleet of vehicles in the cedar-lined driveway of a roadside farm and waited. But as Tweedle-o-twill raced toward them at 90 miles an hour, it became apparent that he had no intention of stopping. He flew off the road, crashing over fences and infant trees, evading the roadblock and barreling past the agents unhampered.

High-speed hot rods were as critical to moonshiners as the half-gallon jars of whiskey they hauled. Closely intertwined southern traditions fueled by fast cars and competition, whiskey driving and stock car racing went hand-in-hand. Whiskey drivers competed both on and off the racetrack, and mechanics like Harvey battled to build the best whiskey car. They removed the back seat from the carsHarvey preferred 1940 Fordsto make space for the loads, but the real magic happened under the hood.

"We'd change the motor in them, put a big, high-speed motor in. That's what makes 'em go, go, go," Harvey said. "We had racecars. They'd get away from anybody."

Anybody, meaning the law.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road | Thunder was his engine, and white lightnin' was his load | There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst | They law they swore they'd get him, but the devil got him first
On rare occasions, the police managed to corner whiskey drivers and seize their cars, keeping some for themselves and selling the rest at auction. 

"I'd buy them all back at the courthouse in Knoxville," Harvey said, laughing. "I got to where I'd go down there and buy them, and they'd say, 'You can't have no more cars. They're back on the damn road in a week.'"

Raised in the harsh hills of Appalachia, moonshiners were resilient by nature, determined to keep their stills operating and their cars running. But it wasn't without risk. Moonshining was a serious gamble, its offenders subject to federal charges of conspiracy, operating an unregistered still, brewing unregistered whiskey, and trafficking an illegal good.

"If you got caught, they'd give you time in the workhouse, or they'd put you in the Big House," Harvey said. "You'd stay there for maybe a year."

But with the federal tax on whiskey at $9.50 a gallon in 1950, when a six-gallon case sold for $5 or $6, profit-seeking moonshiners willingly took their operations underground.
Roarin' out of Harlan, revvin' up his mill | He shot the gap at Cumberland, and screamed by Maynardville | With T-men on his taillights, roadblocks up ahead | The mountain boy took roads that even angels feared to tread
After clearing the first roadblock, Tweedle-o-twill roared down Kingston Pike, unaware that a second roadblock, a row of cars, bumper to bumper, was aligned at the intersection of Morrell Road and Kingston Pike. John and his friends watched from a nearby farmhouse, located on the present-day site of West Town Mall.

"As he came back on Kingston Pike, he's got an uphill, right-hand turn. This turn, Dead Man's Curve, is what's called an off-camber turn," Gabbard explained. "This was a notorious turn."

Rocketing around the bend, he lost control, sending the car into a dirt bank bordering what is today the parking lot of Bearden's Cat Music. The high-speed collision whipped up a cloud of red clay dust visible from the second roadblock. As the federal agents raced to the scene, John pedaled down Kingston Pike to catch a glimpse of the accident that would become legendary. 

In writing Return to Thunder Road, Gabbard encountered a number of people claiming to have been witnesses of the famed crash, others identifying Tweedle-o-twill as a distant relative. While ultimately finding John Fitzgerald's account to be most historically accurate, Gabbard didn't write off the others as entirely false. 

In the Thunder Road days, two-lane highways spidered across the southern countryside, roughly constructed with insubstantial macadam, their paths determined by the lay of the land and farmers' willingness to sell their property. Accidents among moonshiners, traveling by night and often dodging the law, were inevitable.

And after the Thunder Road film popularized the accident, southerners laid claim to the legend, and it became something of a storytelling tradition. As the Thunder Road tale passed through generations, its tellers adapted the account to include their friends and family and came to regard each story of a local moonshiner's run-in with the law as "the" Thunder Road.

In fact, Harvey has a Thunder Road story of his own, regarded by his wife Barbara as the "true Thunder Road."

"Rufe Gunter, he drove a race car I made, was coming from Newport to Knoxville. Somebody had ratted on him," said Harvey. "When Rufe found out, he bought an old car, an old Studebaker, and loaded it down. He thought the law wouldn't know him."

But as Rufe neared Knoxville, just outside the city limits at Swann Bridge on Highway 70, the police began tailing him, determined to catch the Newport outlaw.

"They couldn't catch Rufe," Barbara Harvey said. "It became a vendetta."

He swerved and struck a tree stump, propelling his car, loaded with as many as 20 cases of whiskey, into the Holston River.

"The law never did stop," said Harvey. "I went up there, and I found him hanging on a limb in the creek, drowned."

For Harvey, Rufe's death signaled the time to abandon his moonshining days. "When Rufe got drowned up there, I quit. I didn't fool with it no more," he said.

Son, his daddy told him, make this run your last | The tank is filled with hundred-proof, you're all tuned up and gassed | Now, don't take any chances, if you can't get through | I'd rather have you back again than all that mountain dew
In an interview with Gabbard, John, now deceased, recalled his boyhood amazement at the crash site of Tweedle-o-twill. "That bank looked like a bulldozer blade had cut into it," John told him. "He hit straight on with such an impact that it buckled the frame of his car."

As the car launched through the fence of a roadside utilities substation, its trunk sprung open, shattered jars of whiskey seeping their contents amidst the electrical equipment. John watched as the substation burst into flames, the smell of whiskey strong and biting.

It was the distinct smell of cooking whiskey mash that lured police dogs to the moonshine stills dotting the mountain landscape, tucked away in rocky crags or between grassy knolls.

"They stayed till somebody ratted on them," Harvey said.

The illegal brewing process started with mash, a substance consisting of liquefied fruit or grain mill and warm water, eventually to be mixed with yeast and covered for several days to ferment. After fermentation, the still was placed over a fire, bringing the alcohol to a boil and pushing the vapor through copper tubing submerged in a cold water bath. The alcohol vapor condensed into a water whiskey, called singlings, and was heated again to yield a crystal clear liquid. Some called it 'splode; others called it mountain dew. Most just knew it as 'shine.
Blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike | Then right outside of Bearden, there they made the fatal strike | He left the road at 90; that's all there is to say | The devil got that moonshine and the mountain boy that day
John gazed at the motionless, bloodied form of Tweedle-o-twill lying next to the crushed car. Thrown upon impact, the small-framed, twenty-something man was crumpled on the pavement, his body resting humbly in the fetal position. His hair was dark and cut in the typical 1950s fashion, and the sleeves of his light-colored shirt were stylishly rolled.

The officials tried to shoo John, but too entranced to leave, he just stepped onto his father's field that bordered the scene.

"I remember looking at the driver and thinking, 'What a waste,'" John told Gabbard. "He have his life for a trunk of whiskey." 


  1. Enjoyed reading , but what was Tweedle-o twill's real name? Where was he from?