OPINION: A brief history of McCleary’s moonshining days

Do you know how many museums there are in Gray Harbor County?

There are 12. Surprised me, too. Nancy Cuyle, a guest speaker at our August meeting invited us to join the Grays Harbor Museum Passport Tour. We will be going to a meeting to investigate this program more thoroughly. If you don’t know about a museum, how can you visit it? This would be a great way to increase traffic through the various homes of history for us locals, and think how much fun it will be for the tourists who just thought Grays Harbor was a gateway to the Pacific. More about this in future articles.

Still curious about our still? Undoubtedly, “still,” as in moonshine, is short for distillery. This very popular contraption was anything but still, as defined in the dictionary. The dictionary says, remaining in place, free from sound or noise, free from turbulence or commotion, without waves or perceptible current, not flowing, not effervescent or sparkling…HA. Oh, it was stationary, but it bubbled and boiled and produced a product so sought after during prohibition (1920-1933) that many people made their fortunes by supplying that which man will not be denied. Whiskey. Moonshine. Bootlegging did not miss McCleary.

The state of Washington actually went dry in 1916 — much before the rest of the nation.

Without the extensive research of people like Charles Fattig, and Steve Willis, this story could not be written.

The McCleary Museum has a copper still donated by Herbert C. Murray (1915-1987). He brought it to the museum in the ’80s and he said Sharky Estes, who lived down the Mox Chehalis, had originally owned it. It is reported by old time residents of McCleary that Henry McCleary did not mind bootlegging in his town, so long as it was the good stuff. The bad stuff would get you run out of town. It became a second industry for McCleary, after the door factory. They even had their own label “McCleary Moonshine” on a shield decorated with red and white bars of the United States flag and the stars and moon the manufacture probably worked under. Its slogan, simple and true, “made in the woods,” was sold throughout the county in fruit jars.

“When the nation went dry, McCleary went wet,” said Ernest Teagle (1886-1976), McCleary Historian.

Bill Willis, (1931-2006) a past McCleary Museum volunteer, built the exhibit for the McCleary Museum. He stated, “To understand the heritage of McCleary, this would be important for the next generation to understand. The moonshining was as important as the logging and the timber.” In the June 11, 1997, issue of the East County News there is an in-depth story about the “forbidden juices” that once flowed in McCleary. Bill, in his youth, acted as a lookout for a brother’s still. At one point, federal agents searched tirelessly for a known stash of moonshine, but never found it. The belief is that the minister at the Methodist church opened the church’s roomy basement to moonshiners. The reverend believed that it was ‘good, clean moonshine.”

Stills and their coils were made of copper because alcohol would cut through other metals, like iron, tin, zinc, or aluminum, and poison the liquor. As Charles Fattig points out, alcohol boils at 165 degrees and water boils at 212 degrees. The trick is to not allow the still to get much over the 165 degrees or you run the risk of getting water contamination into your finished product. A hydrometer was used to determine if water was present in the alcohol.

Bill Willis told us the first liquor out of the spout tested about 188 proof. That is pure grain alcohol. After the still ran for a time, the test would drop. The goal was to make the moonshine 100 proof. Alcohol testers were readily available in local drug stores at the time. When the alcohol was about 105 proof, it would be put into charred oak kegs for aging. The aging process would drop it another two or three degrees. Very little, if any, whiskey was stored near the stills. It was almost always sold to distributors immediately.

Among necessary items are: still, coil, firebox, mash barrels, wood stirring paddle, shotgun, lantern, field glasses, ax and charred oak kegs.

Yes, September’s newsletter is going to be a good one. Membership for one year is $10 a single person or $15 a couple. Send for your subscription (4 quarterly issues) today, and ask for a copy of the September newsletter. Further letters will be automatic. McCleary Museum, PO Box 554, McCleary, WA 98557.

Linda Thompson is the editor of the McCleary Museum Newsletter. She has been a volunteer at the museum since 1990.