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Jack Powell, who died Saturday, chased moonshiners for years across Southwest Virginia. He wrote four books about his experiences.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Jack Powell arrested moonshiners, busted stills and chased bootleggers in their souped-up cars for nearly 35 years. Along the way, he gathered enough stories to fill four books about his career as a state Alcoholic Beverage Control agent.
Powell named those volumes “A Dying Art” in tribute to the old days of whiskey-makers and the “revenuers” who tracked them. Now, the storyteller is gone, too. Powell died Saturday at age 80.
The veteran Roanoke lawman died after a lawn mower he was riding flipped and he fell down a hill near his home on Yellow Mountain Road. His wife, Mary, said she was still waiting for a report from the medical examiner’s office on Monday.
The couple celebrated their 55th anniversary last Friday, said Mary Powell, 74.
Powell was scheduled to be part of a “moonshiners’ panel” at the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival on Saturday, where former liquor-makers, lawmen and reporters swap stories from Southwest Virginia’s whiskey-soaked past.
Powell’s death “is a great loss to the lore of moonshining,” said Vaughan Webb, assistant director at the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College. “He was a wealth of information. Jack was a character and he really knew how to tell a story.”
He had plenty of stories to tell. The Jefferson High School graduate served in the Navy and later worked as a Roanoke police officer before joining the ABC in 1957. He chased bootleggers across Southwest Virginia, from the hills of Franklin County to the hollows of the coal fields. He was jailed in Marion while working undercover, unable to convince his jailers that they were on the same side. Once, he mistakenly raided an elderly couple making molasses in the woods near the Blue Ridge Parkway. He had close calls with rattlesnakes, dodged bullets and carried a still-busting ax he called “The Devil.”
Newspaper reporter and photographer Morris Stephenson befriended Powell about 15 years ago. One of Stephenson’s favorite Powell stories was the one where Powell drove off a New River bridge while chasing a guy near Ripplemead in Giles County. Because of his on-the-job recklessness, his bosses with the state placed him on probation and made him pay for the damaged car. He scraped up the money by selling the wrecked heap to a fellow in Floyd County.
“Not long after that, they stopped a bootlegger in West Virginia,” Morrison said, “and they found the motor from [Powell’s] car in the bootlegger’s car.”
After he retired, Powell published four volumes of “A Dying Art.” He also encouraged Stephenson to write a memoir of his own experiences chronicling the work of state and federal agents and the men they chased. Stephenson’s book, “A Night of Makin’ Likker — Plus Other Stories from the Moonshine Capital of the World,” came out last year.
“He was a dear friend,” Stephenson said.
Mary Powell said that her husband loved to talk about his work, which he clearly loved. On the other hand, she worried frequently when her husband disappeared for days on undercover raids in the mountains.
“We didn’t have cellphones or any way to communicate,” she said. “I never knew where he was, but the good Lord always sent him back.”
The Powells have two daughters and six grandchildren. Their family members’ military careers had spread them around the world, which allowed the Powells to spend recent years traveling to Germany, Austria, France, Hawaii and other places.
Powell often spoke respectfully of the bootleggers he arrested, some of whom he knew on a first-name basis.
“They have been our adversaries, of course, because they were evading the very taxes you and I have to pay,” he told The Roanoke Times in 1996. “But other than violating tax laws, you can say the majority are pretty good, hardworking people and always have been.”
Webb said that Powell understood that many moonshiners were making liquor in order to support their families during tough economic times in the mountains.
“He knew not only the men he was chasing, he knew their family, their kids, their wives and their family struggles,” Webb said. “His job was not that easy. I never got the sense that he held a vindictive attitude or any animosity toward those he was trying to catch. He was not on a witch hunt. He was upholding the law.”
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