BYRON — On a recent Wednesday morning, Tim Thornton made his way through a wooded area behind turn three at the old Middle Georgia Raceway in search of the source of a local legend.
Not quite remembering how to get to it, he turned one way and then the other before locating a path that led down to a deep hole in the ground. The hole is the remnant of what became the talk of the town in 1967.
On Sept. 23 of that year, federal agents discovered a moonshine distillery buried in a chamber next to the track, and it wasn’t just any still. An account published in The Macon Telegraph described it as an elaborate, sophisticated operation with two fermentation tanks totaling 3,700 gallons. It was estimated to be capable of producing 80 gallons of moonshine per day. A dummy ticket booth had a trap door that led to the chamber, which was 17 feet underground.
Thornton, who now owns the track, attended races there at the time, and he remembers the still’s discovery well. He wants to commemorate it next year by holding a moonshine festival, in which he plans to sell legal moonshine.
He said it remains a well-remembered event in Peach County history.
“I’m still amazed at how many people come out here for various events and say ‘I want to see where the still site was,’” Thornton said. “Everybody has heard about it.”
The track owner at the time, Lamar Brown Jr., was arrested after the discovery was made.
The still was reported to have an electric exhaust system, electric lighting and electric insect repelling devices. Federal agents found out about it after a hunter smelled fumes and tipped them off. Agents would normally have blown it up with dynamite but instead destroyed it with acetylene torches so as not to damage the track. A race was held there the next day.
Some speculated that race fans never smelled the fumes because the racing fumes overpowered them.
One agent said it was the most elaborate and clever moonshine operation he had ever seen.
Thornton said the moonshine wasn’t sold during races. He spoke to a former racer who told him a race team from Miami would come up for a race, then take huge amounts of moonshine back in a car hauler. The racer didn’t find that out until the still was discovered.
“He said he never could figure out why these people were coming all the way from Miami for a $100 first prize,” Thornton said.
Although amateur races were held there regularly, from 1966 to 1971 the half-mile track featured nine NASCAR Grand National races, now the Sprint Cup, and four of those were won by Richard Petty.
On Aug. 31, Thornton is planning to have a racers reunion there, and Petty is scheduled to attend.
Thornton hasn’t set a date for the moonshine festival, but he is planning to clear the area around the still site and build a deck from the track so that attendees can see it. He is also planning to have at least one nonworking moonshine still at the festival.
He recently persuaded the Peach County Board of Commissioners to pass an ordinance allowing one-day liquor licenses, so he can sell moonshine at the festival. Paying the $5,800 fee for an annual license would have been cost prohibitive. He also plans to give away samples.
Thornton said moonshine and NASCAR are connected, in that it grew out of moonshine runners competing to see who had the fastest car. NASCAR legend Junior Johnson was a former bootlegger.
In December 1967, Brown was tried in Peach County, and it ended in a hung jury. A year later he was tried again.
According to the Telegraph account, the government produced an invoice Brown had signed for the purchase of 24 pounds of yeast, which is used for the fermentation of alcohol. The purchase was made 10 days before the still was found.
Brown said he bought the yeast for use in making food for the concessions stand at the track. The prosecutor, Fred Hasty, told the jury “24 pounds of yeast would make enough bread to feed the City of Atlanta for a week.”
Brown, the only witness for the defense, denied knowing the still was there.
“So help me God,” he said, “if I ever made, sold or drank voluntarily an illegal drop of whisky or knew anyone who made, sold or transported illegal whisky ... I hope God will strike me dead.”
The jury deliberated less than two hours before finding him not guilty.