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Of all the bootleg liquor operations in the Harricanes, none was more newsworthy than the massive underground still found on the banks of the Neuse River in northern Wake County. It produced kegs of moonshine that were dropped into the water and floated to a pickup point downstream–until a pair of revenue officers noticed too many ducks and solved the mystery.
Raleigh, February 6, 1903 – Huldah Nines was about forty years old when she pleaded guilty to running a blockade still. Newspaper reports describe her as a woman of medium height, light hair, and rather pleasant features– who would have been “comely” if not for the fact she was wearing an old split bonnet and had a snuff-dipping toothbrush in her mouth.
Nines is famous for operating a “blockade still” that produced hundreds of kegs of corn liquor and evaded detection for ten years.
Revenue officers suspected a still was operating near Hester and Thompson’s mill in the Harricanes. In fact, they’d been searching for this mythical still for years. They’d discovered several places where stills had been recently pulled out. But they’d never found anything large or substantial or–significantly–still in operation.
It was the month of November in 1902 when Starkey Hare and Dr. Perkins, a pair of revenue agents who worked as a team, noticed something strange near Hester and Thompson’s mill.
Wild ducks, everywhere.
Deciding it was a good day to hunt, the officers hid along the bank until they noticed the ducks were eating cornmeal bran floating on top of the water–and it looked like the bran was cooked.
Evidently a different kind of hunt was in order. Cooked bran meant there was a still nearby, and it was clear that still was connected to the mill.
The mill-house was built into the side of a slope beside the dam and surrounded by woods. Hare and Perkins decided to launch an extended stakeout. Hiding in the brush, they waited to see who would go in and out of the mill-house.
It was Huldah Nines.
She came and went over and over again. And bran would float on the surface of the water for days on end.
Searching the riverbank, Hare and Perkins also found a landing place with kegs floating in the water. They opened one and found it full of newly-made corn whiskey. They put all the kegs back just as they’d found them.
Over the next few days, Huldah Nines spent a lot of time at the mill. Sometimes she stayed all night. Finally, Hare and Perkins followed her in to make the bust.
But when they got inside the mill-house was empty.
Huldah Nines had vanished.
The vanishing of Huldah Nines grew even more mysterious after Hare and Perkins saw a thick column of heavy black smoke rising from the mill’s chimney even though the fireplace inside the building had been empty and cold.
The still was connected to the chimney–but where was it?
After dark, Hare and Perkins slipped back into the mill-house and picked a hiding spot. From this vantage point, they watched as Huldah Nines and a man by the name of Tilly arrived at the mill, walked to the dam, and vanished through the pouring water.
They didn’t return.
The next night, Hare and Perkins tried it themselves. After getting soaked beneath water from the dam, they came out the other side and noticed a door in the side of the hill. It was securely locked. So they wet some flour into a paste, took an impression of the keyhole, went back to Raleigh, and had a key made.
It took considerable work, but when they finally opened the door it revealed an entrance concealed underground.
The entrance led to a six-foot long tunnel that opened into a large underground room equipped with a complete whiskey distillery. Water moved from the dam, to the still, and then back outside–carrying the slops that attracted the ducks. Smoke from the still’s furnace rose through the mill-house chimney and a hole in the ground overhead provided ventilation hidden by vegetation.
The officers expected trouble. They knew a desperado by the name of Charles Pearce–who’d been convicted of moonshining and recently escaped from the penitentiary–was loose in the neighborhood.
After two hours of waiting, the officers heard the door open.
In walked Huldah Nines. Hare and Perkins spied from a dark corner as she threw off the rubber coat she’d worn to pass through the pouring river water. Then she stopped at the furnace and kindled up the fire.
That’s when Hare and Perkins stepped into the open.
Nines looked at them in utter consternation and said, “Well, well, well! I’ve been running this still for ten years and I never expected you to find it.”
She told them the distillery was the handiwork of a man who had been dead for several years. He’d taught her everything–then she showed them how. She took a keg, rolled it to the door, put it in the river, and turned it loose. “You’ll find that keg in a few minutes at a landing place about four hundred yards down the river,” she said.
Of course, that’s something they already knew.
Hare and Perkins took the woman moonshiner off to jail. As they drove to Raleigh, they offered her a deal. If she helped them arrest Charley Pearce, they’d let her off.
But Huldah Nines refused.
She said she’d take her punishment but she’d never betray her accomplices.
(The original report is available on newspapers.com in the February 6, 1903 issue of the Gastonia Gazette, with a “Raleigh Dispatch to Richmond News” byline. This is a shortened version, condensed for style and length. A search of newspapers.com turns up 157 stories on the Harricanes, going all the way back to 1822.)