The area was coined the Dark Corner and many believed that it was because of the people. They were whisky-makers, drinkers and backwoods-type people who were suspicious of outsiders. But in reality it was dubbed the dark corner in 1832, because it was the only area that voted against the nullification act (which gave South Carolina the right to ignore federal mandates). From then on it was said that this was a dark corner where the light of Nullification could never shine.
Dean Campbell, dubbed the “Squire of the Dark Corner” has made it his mission to keep the history of the Dark Corner alive. His family sang ballads and passed stories down from generation to generation. “We want people to discover the Dark Corner for themselves though”, says Campbell. “We will never have a drive-it-yourself brochure or historical markers. That’s not who we are”.
Moonshine was originally used for medicinal purposes and even preachers had stills. There were few medicines widely available during that time and local doctors were usually left to use whatever they had on hand. The Irish and Scots had been distilling grains in their homeland and they considered moonshine the “water of life”. They would mix different herbs, spices or fruits depending on what kind of ailment they wanted to cure. For example, ginger and sugar mixed with moonshine and boiled water was used to “sweat” out the flu while honey and lemon juice mixed with moonshine was used as a cough syrup.
Moonshine got a bad rap when the local settlers refused to pay government taxes on their moonshine, thus creating “illegal” moonshine stills. The settlers believed that it was their God-given right to make moonshine. But they also brewed it for economic reasons. Prior to textile mills, there was no real industry in the upstate. Farming and lumbering were the only money-making ventures. The farmers soon discovered that instead of getting about 50 cents for a bushel of corn, they could convert the corn into meal and distill it into moonshine and bring in about $1.00 a gallon or $2.50 per bushel.
Today, the Dark Corner Distillery in downtown Greenville makes moonshine just like it was made in the 1700’s. “We use an 80-gallon copper pot, no electronics, fresh corn and other local ingredients to create a premium quality product,” says co-owner Joe Fenten. “But people don’t just have the opportunity to come in and sample the spirits, they can come in and get some history of the Dark Corner of South Carolina.”
Emotions ran high over moonshine and there were many gunfights and feuds. There was an unwritten local code that it was considered an unpardonable sin and a cowardly act to report a distillery. There were disputes over who gave who’s information to revenue officers, information on their distilleries or raids on their stills. This alone was responsible for more killings in the dark corner than anything else.
Many of the bigger families in the area—the Howards, the Gosnells and the Bowers were South Carolina’s version of the Hatfield and McCoys. Shootings and killings were common amongst these families and almost all were over moonshine. One of the most “famous” altercations was between Joshua Howard and Richard Gosnell at the Mountain Hill Church in August of 1891. Apparently about a week earlier, one of the Gosnell daughters had been mistreated and when Howard, who presumably had been drinking, saw Gosnell getting ready to go into church he shot at him. Other Howard and Gosnell relatives joined in the gun fight and over 40-50 shots were fired killing two of the Howards.
But even with the family feuds, it was still a close-knit community that looked out for one another. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the government really tried to crack down on illegal moonshine stills. They would send “revenuers”, State and Federal Officers appointed by the government to collect taxes. Locals would find out about the planned raid though and would warn other “shiners” that the law was coming by firing rapid gunshots in the air. The revenuers would usually find the stills unmanned and would cut it up but wouldn’t have anyone to arrest.
Mystery has always shrouded the Dark Corner and many believe several areas to be haunted or “hainted”. There’s a cabin at Camp Old Indian that was used as a secret meeting place by the Gosnell family for years. It is said that some visitors have heard groaning and kicking sounds presumably from Luther Gosnell who died by the fireplace having an epileptic fit. There are other reports of baby’s crying (when there are none around) and visions of wagon wheels on fire when crossing certain streams.
But above all, this is a resilient bunch of people. Over 150 families of the first original settlers still live in the area. Some were forced out of their homes for lumbering in 1904 and then again in 1917 when the Army decided to use the area as an artillery range. But they came back.
The Dark Corner will always be the “unofficial” capital of moonshining. People still make moonshine like “their daddy taught them to” and the area remains a sort of a mystery to outsiders. But people such as Joe Fenton and Dean Campbell are making great strides in educating visitors to the area. “It’s important to preserve our history and our heritage”, says Joe Fenton.