“When East Lake Lost Regard for the Law,” from The Independent, Elizabeth City, N.C., published Friday, March 18, 1927.”
Their Resources Dwindled as They Fought Big Corporations; Employment Ceased, and Prohibition Offered the Big Chance
East Lake today is in a turmoil. Its far-famed industry is crippled. Paralyzed by forces that outnumber his own, King Corn has temporarily abdicated the throne he has held undisputed for eight years or more, and before the terrific onslaughts of Federal agents in the past week, he fled far back into the impenetrable fastnesses of the Alligator River swamps.
King Corn has fled, but hopeful of recovering from the heaviest blow ever dealt his solar plexus. A dozen stills fell last Friday before the attack of nearly 20 Federal Agents under the command of Capt. A.G. McDuffie of Fayetteville, who invaded the swamps with the assistance of a 75-foot vessel of the Coast Guard rum fleet, commanded by Capt. Glenn Willis. Capt. McDuffie had learned how news of a raid can leak out thru Elizabeth City, and he planned his attack from New Bern this time. Part of his force of officers assembled at Manteo, went in the night to the East Lake Section, and made their way under cover of darkness to Mill Tail Creek, a narrow and tortuous waterway where most of the stills were found. They did not invade the shores of South Lake and East Lake, but saved these lakes for last, and were hopeful of raiding the giant Holmes still as the closing and crowning achievement of their campaign.
The distillers blame it all on one Joshua Relfe of Elizabeth City. Relfe recently went over to the Buffalo City section and worked for quite a while. He came back to Elizabeth City and is said to have conferred frequently with Federal officers London and Ratledge at this city. So well organized is the system of espionage maintained by the distillers that as far back as two weeks before the raid, they got wind of Relfe’s work, and were openly complaining that he had made maps of the section, and had spotted every still on Mill Tail Creek, to aid the officers when the raid should take place. It is said that Relfe will not go again soon to Buffalo City alone.
The East Lakers are expecting the worst. A Federal officer on the Manteo boat the week of the raid, made his boast that he would blot out the liquor industry in the East Lake section. The work of raiding goes on this week, and it is believed that most of the stills on the lakes will be effectually crippled. But the officers looked in vain for the fabled “Hidden City,” about which so much has been said. There is no such place. The stills are located 50 to 100 yards from the waterways, with no shelter, or comforts, and few of them are far from human habitation. Most of them are said to be near the farms of the owners.
Cut Off From the World
The history of the liquor industry in East Lake might be said to date back long before prohibition. It is a story with many ramifications. Originally East Lake was part of Tyrrell, and the most inaccessible part of that county. The people were isolated from their county seat, and conditions were bettered but little when the section joined Dare. It was a great section of virgin pine and juniper forests. Its swamps abounded with game and fur-bearing animals. Its ridge lands were rich and fertile.
The East Lake people were plain, hardworking people, who cultivated their little farms, raised their own honey, and their cattle and hogs waxed fat on the roots and berries in the free ranges of the swamp. Furs brought them a good income, they were “good livers,” and the unlettered and out of touch with the world were always noted for their openheartedness and hospitality. They secured grants to large tracts of the lands and held them in their own name and many of them profited from the sale of timber from their lands.
But the exploitation of the timber industry of eastern North Carolina reached the forests of the East Lake region and played havoc with the peace and contentment of the people. The big timber interests came to East Lake, bought some of the land and stripped it of the trees. They cut, not only on their own lands, but on the lands of the natives, and when a native protested and sought legal action to save his timber, the lumber companies stood him off in courts until after the timber was cut off. Dozens of East Lake people have gone to their remote County seat year after year to fight their cases, paying their own expenses for transportation and board for weeks at a time from their limited means, until their resources were exhausted. And the rich timber interests, with their unlimited funds and more able lawyers, were successful in staving off the disposition of the cases, securing a continuance for term after term until they had secured the timber they sought, and finally the case would drop. It Was often said one of the timber company that it only wanted to buy one tree on a piece of land to get a foothold, and it would take the rest before it stopped cutting. The only man who was successful in stopping their work was the man who went out in the swamp and held the invaders off at the point of a gun.
Courts Ruled Against Them
Unable to secure what they believed their just rights in the courts, galled by the loss of their timber, and the steady depletion of their funds by lawyers and legal expenses, there grew up a great bitterness against the courts, and disrespect for the ways of the law. The law seemed unworthy of recognition by an East Laker who had seen it work for the rich man and against the poor man. The unlettered woodsman and farmer could not understand anything except he had been dispossessed of what he had long called his own.
The big timber operations drove the game farther back in the swamps, and cut out this source of revenue. The farms were poorly drained and wet years played havoc with crops. The employment that supported many people in the timber business declined. Finally the operations of a company that gave employment to hundreds of men and made money flow freely in the vicinity ceased shortly after the advent of the prohibition laws. Many families were destitute, hundreds of people moved away to seek employment in the cities. Taxes were high, and the discontent of the people was heightened when the lawyers of the lumber company secured big reductions on their assessments.
The people were up against it in East Lake, and when big liquor interests established their stills in the swamps, many men found the employment at good wages in the stills, and learned the business. The big Brickhouse distilling interests gave employment to many people who learned how to make liquor, and growing dissatisfied, as employes, they found financial backing and established their own stills. The East Laker found a ready market at good prices for his whiskey because he was enabled to produce a good product. He had little fear of molestation and having the time to make a good product, felt justified in installing good equipment that would enable him to make a tremendous output. In the scattered neighborhoods of the section are something like 400 inhabitants. Buffalo City, once the headquarters of the big Dare Lumber Company operations, is about two miles from the Methodist Church and school. The other communities are located at a similar distance.
The average East Laker today is a generous, hospitable person, who would go out of his way to do a stranger a favor. The people are usually good providers, and outside of their liquor operations, are generally law abiding. They were always rough, hard-hitting men who got along fine until they got to drinking, but at that, fights were seldom and in a decade only about two serious fights have taken place between drinking men, with no fatalities in either instance. They never could understand why liquor shouldn’t be available to all who wanted it. They never had much respect for the administration of the law, yet they generally respected a neighbor’s rights.
And it is said by those who know East Lake that there are not over 30 stills in the section, and not over 60 people of the more than 400 are engaged in the business. For there are dozens of people in the community who are bitter against the industry, and would oppose it, if for no other reason than the ill-fame it gives their home section.