Heritage/History Lifestyle

History Feature: The Moonshining Matriarch

The Bootlegging Past of Grace McAbee

By Lauren Stepp

Grace McAbee’s back was against the wall. With her husband making low wages, she needed to eke out her own living. But there were few options.

She could take in laundry, as many women did then. Or, she could join the legions making up Asheville’s “shadow economy.” McAbee chose the latter.

J.A. Baker Packing Strike. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Citizen

“She ran a bootlegging operation on a scale larger than I can even begin to fathom,” says Katherine Cutshall, the collections manager at Buncombe County Special Collections. Cutshall began unveiling McAbee’s gutsy life history while sorting through boxes of her father’s keepsakes. She came across a police report about a teen arrested for chicken theft. As it happened, that teen was McAbee—the sister of Cutshall’s great-grandmother.
Intrigued, Cutshall dug deeper. She discovered that McAbee was born in the Ivy Hill community of Haywood County in the early 1900s. As a young woman, she moved to Asheville. Then, she and her husband built a home in the West End-Factory Hill neighborhood located in the area now known as Chicken Hill.

Today, Chicken Hill is a hip hamlet within walking distance of art galleries and gastropubs. But during McAbee’s time, it was a place defined by a “constant racket of machinery and polluted air,” says Cutshall. “Life for women in the West End was pretty rough.”

Though some women stayed at home to care for young children, many joined their husbands in factory jobs, laboring at Asheville Cotton Mill or Hans Rees Tannery. But the money was never enough.

“Wages were really depressed during this time,” says Cutshall. At J.A. Baker Packing, a meat distributor where McAbee’s husband worked, wages stagnated below 20 cents per hour—proportionally less than today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Paltry pay combined with the economic downturn of 1929 pushed many families to the brink of desperation. “It became important for women to fill in the gaps,” says Cutshall. Some found domestic side hustles, like housekeeping or laundering, while others took up less savory ventures like prostitution and petty theft. Then there were the emboldened few, like McAbee, who became bootleggers.

From oral histories, Cutshall learned that McAbee’s operation—however illegal—was truly ingenious. Though her brothers ran ‘shine through the mountains in cars, McAbee stuck to the rails. Each week, trains would wheeze to a halt next to her home. Pints of liquor would then be unloaded, stashed in holes dug under the tracks and later retrieved.

Despite careful planning, McAbee was eventually found out and sentenced to a term of labor on the roads. She also served time at Federal Prison Camp Alderson. Rap sheet aside, Cutshall thinks we can all relate to McAbee and other matriarchs of the West End. “They were like any other women in any other city in the US,” says Cutshall. “They were just trying to do what they could to make ends meet.”

To learn more about the history of Chicken Hill, visit ChickenHillNC.com.

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