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In memoir, retired ‘revenuer’ recounts tracking moonshiners

Posted on November 14, 2021

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Binkley

Binkley

YOUNGSVILLE — The heyday of illegally making moonshine is over, and few today have firsthand knowledge of the practice. Family members pass down stories of illicit liquor production, but those stories often are embellished.

That’s why Johnny C. Binkley wrote “Moonshiners and Revenuers,” a book about his experiences as one of the last federal agents, known as revenuers, to investigate moonshiners in North Carolina.

“It is an important story that should be told and told from the point of view of one with some firsthand knowledge,” said Binkley, a former agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “I thought, Why not write this down from somebody with some firsthand knowledge? And it’ll be something somebody can go back and look at and try to understand that period in this country.”

Binkley, who moved to Youngsville recently, started as an ATF agent in 1969. He worked out of the Raleigh office, battling against bootleggers in Wake, Franklin, Granville and Johnston counties.

He grew up in Chatham County, and to get alcohol, locals would have to travel to Raleigh or Greensboro to visit the nearest ABC store.

“Or you could go around the corner to the bootlegger and get it about a third of the price,” Binkley said.

Moonshine was tied into the economy, he added. It was cheaper to purchase while also being big money for the moonshiners. Several people made a career out of it.

Binkley said one of his mentors, Joe Carter, made a career out of arresting Percy Flowers, a Clayton man known in legend as the “King of the Moonshiners.” Carter arrested Flowers around six or seven times — but never got a conviction.

Binkley said during the 1950s and ‘60s, large tractor-trailers would come down from Pennsylvania to Raleigh. Someone would bring them down to Flowers’ store in Clayton, and they’d load the trailer with illegal alcohol and send it back.

Flowers wasn’t as involved in moonshining by the time Binkley came on board as a revenuer, but Binkley still had a run-in with him.

“He probably sold more liquor than anybody else I know of,” Binkley said. “We searched the store, which was smaller then than it is now, and found 150 gallons of liquor. We had bought from one of the guys who worked for him undercover.”

Carter told Binkley that Flowers was incredibly smart and could’ve made money at any business. Flowers was so well known as a moonshiner,  the Saturday Evening Post published a story on him in 1958. Binkley found a copy of the article on eBay and used it to help him write about Flowers for his book.

The revenuers’ work was a lot more difficult then, Binkley said. They didn’t have modern conveniences, such as GPS, drones or updated maps. To find stills, they would park at crossroads. If the moonshiner went past them one day, the next he would set up at the next crossroads. If he didn’t see the moonshiner that day, he knew the still was somewhere in between. The agents would search the woods until they found it, Binkley said.

Eventually, moonshining began to fade away in North Carolina, but the ATF didn’t stop working. The bureau transitioned its attention to cigarette smuggling before moving onto what it’s best known for today: firearms and explosives.

“I tried to do two things. The primary was talk about the moonshiners and revenuers,” Binkley said. “The other was about the history of the ATF and how it became what it is.”

When Binkley started, the ATF was part of the Internal Revenue Service, thus the name “revenuers.” But during his tenure, it became a separate bureau within the Treasury Department. Decades later, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, the ATF became part of the Justice Department.

The bureau requires its agents to retire between the ages of 50-57. Binkley retired in October 1994 when it stopped being fun, he said.

He kept in touch with other agents and started “messing around” with writing the book around a decade ago. Eventually, he got serious about writing the book and finished it in about two years.

“Wherever I go now, I’m always the oldest guy,” Binkley said. “I’m going to a retirement party tonight for the last guy I worked with (in 1994). ... The revenuers are dying out.”

Binkley is a first-time author who didn’t know anything about the publishing business. He chose Acclaim Press in Missouri because it published a pictorial history of the ATF.

“The most enjoyable part was — I’m not going to say finishing it, though that was very enjoyable,” Binkley said. “The most enjoyable thing was the feedback I got from people. ... That was kind of cool to hear people say they enjoyed it.”

Binkley hopes the book doesn’t just appeal to people in law enforcement, but also to people who love history. He added that while the individual stories are local, the book as a whole is the ATF’s story.

“Moonshiners and Revenuers” was published in November 2020 and can be found at Acclaim’s website, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Binkley also has signed copies for sale to people who email him at binkleyjc@gmail.com.

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