Buck O’Hairen, Legendary for Moonshine and Sunshine

Appalachian folklore and moonshine go hand in hand. And the tall tale of Buck O’Hairen is no different.

Buck O'Hairen's mugshot — believed to be the only known photo of him — after his arrest on suspicion of arson charges, 1874. (Photo courtesy of http://whoisbuckohairen.com.)

Buck O’Hairen’s mugshot — believed to be the only known photo of him — after his arrest on suspicion of arson charges, 1874. (Photo courtesy of http://whoisbuckohairen.com.)

As the story goes, Buck O’Hairen was born in 1837 near Boonville, North Carolina. Like most boys born into poor, rural communities, Buck spent his early days working his family’s corn farm. Around the age of 13, he learned how apple brandy moonshine was made at the farm of Bluford McGee in Wilkes County, a skill which he employed back at his family’s property to earn extra money in the winter months. By the time of the Civil War, O’Hairen would become one of the most notorious moonshiners in the Pilot Mountain region.

When Lincoln’s Union won the war, many distillers in the South decided to head West and leave their checkered pasts behind rather than face back-taxes, or worse, imprisonment. With fewer still sites running in states like Tennessee and North Carolina, O’Hairen chose to stay put and double down on his operation to produce as much ‘shine as he could. By late 1873, O’Hairen was producing around 60 gallons of whiskey per day — enough to give away loads of it to wandering war vets and friendly hillbillies in the area. Producing this much moonshine in a day was nothing short of a miracle at the time.

In the fall of 1874, tragedy struck. One of O’Hairen’s moonshine stills exploded and caused a wildfire which grew worse when a number of drunkards tried to put out the blaze with O’Hairen’s 180-proof likker. State authorities rounded up a dozen or so men on suspicion of arson, including O’Hairen, who was released after one day without being charged.

After the wildfire, O’Hairen had a change of heart, a moment documented in a recently recovered journal. Instead of continuing to produce his famous moonshine, O’Hairen concocted a temperance drink called Sunshine. Made from a mash of ginger root, Blue Mountain blackberries, vegetables and topped with siphoned soda water, Sunshine promised, “It’ll fix yer mornin’ right.” O’Hairen traveled throughout much of the South peddling Sunshine for nearly 20 years until his sudden disappearance in 1892.

His body was never found, but details of Buck O’Hairen’s legend continue to emerge. Early in 2011, hikers near Grassy Creek along the Pilot Mountain valley shot the following photos, which some believe is a moonshine cask with a BOH carved in it, indicating it was one of O’Hairen’s.