Well, the "G" men, "T" men, revenuers, too
Searchin' for the place where he made his brew
They were looking, tryin’ to book him, but my pappy kept on cookin'
Phoo, white lightning — Excerpt from the song “White Lightning,” written by J.P. Richardson (aka the Big Bopper).
The history of the widespread illegal moonshine whiskey industry that thrived in Glen Rose, particularly during Prohibition is well documented.
That era earned Glen Rose its former unofficial title as the “Moonshine Capital of Texas” — decades before its modern identity as the “Dinosaur Capital of Texas.”
The month of October was when locals once celebrated the moonshine era with a light-and-happy-sounding Glen Rose Moonshine Festival.
But what is sometimes overlooked is the uglier, even deadly, consequences of the local moonshine trade.
The shocking assassination of James Aaron “Dick” Watson in Glen Rose was most recently documented in the 2017 book, “The Glen Rose Moonshine Raid,” written by Martin Brown.
Watson — a bootlegger who had earned $4 a day before transforming into an informant, an undercover prohibition agent and prohibition officer for the city of Corsicana — was killed by a still-unknown gunman on Feb. 21, 1924 in Glen Rose.
Nemo resident Ken Fry, a local historian who is the current president of the Somervell County Historical Commission, noted that there “weren’t really many murders back then. Very rare. That’s why this one particular murder kind of made a splash.”
Four people were arrested in the Dick Watson murder investigation, but no one was ever convicted.
Watson apparently became a target when he testified in some of the criminal trials that ensued following the most famous Glen Rose moonshine raid by the Texas Rangers and other lawmen, which began Aug. 25, 1923.
Remarkably, among the 31 who were initially taken into custody in the raids were Somervell County Sheriff T. Walter Davis and County Attorney Eddie Roark after Texas Rangers Captain R.D. Shumate ordered their arrest.
In his book, Brown wrote, “The Glen Rose arrestees were taken by U.S. marshals on Aug. 27, 1923, and presented to U.S. commissioner A.P. McCormick, who arraigned them on the charge of violating the Volstead Act. Bonds of $750 each were set by McCormick. The men were taken back to the McLennan County Jail to await their releases.”
All of them were released on bond within a few days.
A 2012 Glen Rose Reporter article by Kathryn Jones told of a violent confrontation two days after the first big raid, on Aug. 29, 1923 near the Somervell and Bosque county lines. That clash between the lawmen and moonshine still operators resulted in a Waco man named Tullus Holt being killed. One other suspect was captured, but several escaped.
“Some individuals were prosecuted and sent to jail for their involvement with the bootlegger rings in Somervell County while others were set free. It is unknown, however, which of the accused fall into each category,” the article stated.
Jones wrote that District Attorney Shelby S. Cox, who was an advisor to the Texas Rangers during their investigation, said Dallas was one of the most important markets for bootleggers operating in Somervell County prior to the raids.
Cox was quoted as saying, “Investigations revealed that prior to the raids one of the strongest bootlegger rings ever unearthed by officers had been operating in Somervell County. Whiskey makers were pooling their products and selling by a brokerage system to bootleggers in Dallas and other cities.”
A key Texas Ranger involved in the investigation, Marvin “Red” Burton, reportedly stated that “there must have been a total of 40 raids” that weekend.
Fry said there were areas on the Glen Rose side of Chalk Mountain where, “it wasn’t safe to go… you just didn’t do that because people were very suspicious, they had weapons, and you might get shot. It wasn’t a place you wanted to frequent.”
In the 1971 book, “Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land,” author and Somervell County resident John Graves gave a subtly humorous account of one moonshine-related shooting that didn’t prove fatal.
Graves wrote that an “enterprising” deputy “found a still … poured out its contents, and was toting if off down the creek bed when … a twenty-two bullet ricocheted off the stone beside his moving feet, in warning.
“Shoot! he called back over his shoulder without even breaking stride, whereupon they fired a twelve gauge loaded with birdshot, spattering him from afar.
“Shoot! he yelled still walking, and that was when they unlimbered the thirty-thirty. He was hit, reports agree, ‘square in the butt,’ and survived …”
But one Somervell County resident, 72-year-old James Moss, saw some of the more serious damage caused by the fallout from the moonshine industry.
Charlie Moss, who was the father of James Moss, donated one of his old moonshine stills to the Somervell County Museum before he died. It’s still there, on display.
“Daddy called it ‘stuff,’” James said. “Nearly everybody that made it for very long was going to end up in jail.”
The story was no different for Charlie Moss, who even built stills that he sold to other people back in the day.
Others in that family also fell victim.
“My dad’s brother, he died up on a hilltop (at a remote moonshine still site). He died from exposure,” James said. “He got out there and got drunk. It got cold that night. My brother knew where the still was. My daddy built it. I remember when this happened. I was little. My brother got up there. He was laying there on the ground, said he was taking his last breath.
“It did a lot of damage. As well as it made a survival for this county, looking back at my age now, it did a lot of damage to people, too. Whiskey ruined a lot of people around here. It probably wouldn’t have been that bad if it hadn’t been for Prohibition. You can’t tell somebody they can’t do something, is my theory on that.”
James, who worked for 40 years as a pipe fitter and plumber before retiring, said moonshine makers did their business out of desperation in hard times.
“They had to do something. It just so happens it was illegal,” said James. “Unless you was a farmer, everybody in the county was connected to moonshine, one way or another.
”It (making moonshine) was a lot of work. It was a tough life. Nothing was easy back then.”
Asked if perhaps the moonshine makers didn’t think of themselves as criminals, Fry responded, “No, no not at all. They went to church and they were good folks. It was desperation of the times.”
The moonshine stills were often built well out of sight, hidden by thick cedar tree growth in remote, hilly areas near creeks or springs that provided the water needed for the distillation process. There were no roads to provide handy access to haul moonshine ingredients like sugar and bran or corn to where the joints were producing the "shine," James recalled.
“I tell you what, it was a lot of work,” James said. “I seen my daddy throw a 60-pound bale of sugar on one shoulder and grab a case of fruit jars under the other arm and take off walking. It was 300 yards to the creek. He had to go across the creek and a hill. it wasn’t any easy job. It was just a way out — to survive.”
James said that moonshiners took pride in their product, taking a “My whiskey’s better than yours,” attitude.
But James was also blunt about the damage that was inflicted on multiple victims, saying, “It did a lot of damage.”
“Whiskey ruined a lot of people around here,” he said. “History always glorifies the outlaws. They made a lot of money during Prohibition.”
Even in the aftermath of Prohibition, which was from 1920-1933, the moonshine industry continued to roll on. With the county and surrounding areas being dry, people didn’t want to drive all the way to Fort Worth to buy alcohol.
James said his father had a cousin, Bun Moss, who was found dead in his home in 1950. Someone used a .38 revolver to murder him, evidently in the act of stealing the substantial amount of money that Bun was known to carry.
“He carried a lot of money — moonshine money,” James said. “Nobody was ever prosecuted for it. I mean, if you killed a bootlegger, no big deal.”
Brown’s book states that Charlie Moss continued to live in Somervell County until his death at age 88 in 1984. He grew pecans on his farm land, drove a school bus in his later years, and “never had problems with the law.”
Brown’s book also notes a remarkable, yet unrelated, historic occurrence that Charlie Moss became involved in as well.
“In 1934, Charlie and his brother Grandy came across a set of distinctive tracks in the limestone bed of the Paluxy Creek,” Brown wrote. “(The tracks) were later identified as footprints of a four-toed sauropod. The discovery of dinosaur tracks by Moss and others became a national sensation and allowed Glen Rose to lose its old moniker of ‘Moonshine Capital of Texas.’”
It became instead the “Dinosaur Capital of Texas,” by which it is known today.