Thursday, June 9, 2016

Moonshine & Murder

Replica moonshine still at Gladie Creek, Red River Gorge
The Eastern Kentucky hills and mountains are beautiful to look upon, especially in fall and winter.  The sheer cliffs of Southern Bath County along the Menifee County boundary is a majestic view, but a dangerous journey.  These cliffs once hid another danger; moonshine stills and those who wished to keep their clandestine activities guarded from revenuers. 

 During the Prohibition Era between 1920 and 1933, it was illegal to possess, sell, or transport alcoholic beverages in the United States.  People found ways to bypass laws by making their own alcohol in secret, and often heavily guarded, locations.  The Bureau of Prohibition was organized in 1920 with the sole mission of  thwarting the sale, possession and transport of the illicit spirits.  Federal Agent U.G. McFarland had received word during a raid  that Charley Ballard had a large distilling operation on his property along East Fork Creek near Means, Kentucky.  Bath County resident and former Bath County Jailer Robert Duff was a Federal Agent with the bureau division, joining in October 1921.  He was approaching fifty years old with a wife and seven children during the winter of 1922 and tasked to take on the Ballard family and shut down the illegal distillery.  On December 9, 1922, Agent Duff, accompanied by Agent D.R. Carter and a group of other deputies, set out to execute a search warrant on the Ballard farm. 
The group arrived at the home of Jeff Ballard and confronted him with the warrant to search for and seize any items related to the illegal distillery.  Ballard denied having any moonshine stills on his property, but was detained by two other deputies while Duff, Carter and another agent, W.P. Treadway, began their search.  The trio found a path behind the Ballard home that led to the base of a mountain along a creek bank.  At the edge of the mountain side, they noticed what appeared to be a large brush pile; but at closer inspection, they could make out what looked to be a pathway into the brush. 

Cautiously, the agents moved in to inspect their find and noticed it was a fortified structure dug into the side of the mountain.  In the front were double logged walls with space between them filled with rock and dirt.  Other logs were made into a lean-to type structure across the top, with a layer of tar paper to make a roof.  The entire structure was covered in surrounding brush to camouflage it's true appearance.  A door was to the right of the logged walls and a small shuttered window was in front, giving those inside a view of the outside.  The elaborate structure was built to withstand even the most powerful bullet from a long rifle, and to conceal anyone who may be inside. 
Agent Duff took the lead to open the door, which was secured from the inside.  Finding a stick, he began to beat on the shuttered window to gain entry, when suddenly the door flew open and a hail of bullets flew out, striking Duff.  The other two agents sought cover and returned fire into the still house.  The other deputies, hearing the commotion, quickly ran up to assist but were met with gunfire, pinning them down.  The agents and deputies fell back to protect themselves, returning fire as they could.  Agent Duff lay near the entrance of the fortification, in a direct line of fire.  Attempts were made to retrieve Duff's lifeless body, but quickly abandoned in fear others would suffer the same fate.  Not knowing how many assailants were inside the fortified still house or how much fire power they controlled, the agents and deputies retreated, leaving Agent Duff until an arrangement was made for an undertaker to retrieve his body.  
The next day, Prohibition Bureau Director Sam Collins arrived in Lexington and organized a posse to return to Means and bring the Ballards to justice.  Joining Collins was Lee Stewart, who had a reputation of being one of the most feared and tenacious agents in Eastern Kentucky, and eight other deputies.  The group arrived in Mount Sterling and were joined by five other deputies before trekking to East Fork.  Once the party arrived, they made their way to the site of the previous day's bloody gunfight; Agent Duff's body had been removed by the undertaker as agreed.  The still house was unoccupied but housed an enormous distillery operation; seventeen barrels and fermentors, forty gallons of moonshine, 1,400 gallons of beer and a substantial assortment of related manufacturing materials were seized and destroyed. A still and a 'worm' - a coil made of copper that is a vital part of a still - were missing.  Stewart exited the still house and began following a trail up the mountain, attempting to locate the other components of the operation.  

At the same time, Deputies Eubanks and Phillips began searching for a missing firearm lost during the previous day's battle.  A shot rang out from above and the two dashed for cover, not knowing where the shooter's position was.  A group of eight or ten agents and deputies began to move around to the back of where they heard the shots, to close in on the shooter.  At the crest of the mountain, another shot rang out even closer, but the party couldn't ascertain where the shot had originated. After regrouping from taking cover, the posse cautiously continued along the ridge crest.  About fifty yards from where they had ducked for cover, David Treadway, one of the deputies, lifeless body lay along the path.  Treadway was a twenty-four year old Montgomery County resident and had just joined the posse when they met in Mount Sterling earlier in the day.  The group retrieved Treadway's body and headed off the mountain; a second bloody day in the hollows of Means, and the Ballard's were still on the run. 

The bureau agents convened in Lexington that night and decided to wait a few days for tensions to ease before launching another raid.  Kentucky Governor Morrow offered a $500 reward for the capture of Bob and Charles Ballard for their connection in the murders of the bureau agents.  Twenty agents and deputies moved out at 2:15 a.m. December 15, 1922 with the sole mission of taking the Ballards into custody once and for all.  A new strategy would be deployed; the posse would park at the Means Post Office and walk to the Ballard farm.  It was a cold, drizzly night as they made their way on foot.  Along the way, agents detained anyone they found along the way to insure the Ballards wouldn't be alerted.  Around daylight, the posse arrived at the home of Albert Ballard and arrested him and a cousin, Willie Ferguson.  Soon after, they arrived at the home of Jeff Ballard and found no one was home.  About a half mile away, the group found a cabin behind Willie Ferguson's place and cautiously surrounded it.  Mat Sanders, a deputy in the posse, busted the door open with the butt of his rifle, to be met with instant gunfire.  Sanders was struck and fell at the front door.  While Agent Guy Cole attempted to enter the back door, he was shot three times; twice in the torso and once in the head. 

The other members of the posse  formed two lines and began openly firing into the cabin.  Approximately 150 shots were fired into the cabin; the return fire ceased after a few minutes.  Charley Ballard ran out of the rear door and fled into the woods, being struck twice before disappearing into the thick brush.  Mat Sanders was injured, but Guy Cole succumbed to his injuries on site.  As agents looked inside the cabin, they found Bob Ballard lying in the floor with a fatal wound to his head.  The remaining agents pursued Charley Ballard's trail to the home of Henry Reffett, where they learned the injured assailant had been bandaged up and left via horseback toward Mill Creek in Bath County.  They broke off the chase around dark and returned to the Ferguson cabin to find that Jeff Ballard had been apprehended.  

The following day, agents returned to Means to attempt to locate Charley Ballard.  They were met by Menifee County Sheriff Ben Wells who had a message from Ballard stating that he would surrender to Wells only.  Wells was reportedly a relative of the Ballards and had knowledge of Charley's hiding spot near Preston's train depot.  The bureau agents agreed, on the condition that Ballard be brought to Fayette County.
A total of five were arrested and brought before the United States District Court in Lexington for their roles in the moonshine operation; Jeff and Albert Ballard, Willie Ferguson, Joe Clem and Henry Reffett were charged with violating the National Prohibition Act.  Charley Ballard was charged for the killing of Agents Duff, Cole and Treadway in Menifee County, and charged similarly by the US District Court.  He was under hospital care during the judicial process due to wounds he received in the final gunfight at East Fork, and had to have surgery while in jail to avoid an amputation of his foot.  

The raid garnished national attention; numerous papers nationwide told the story of the raid and killings within the following days.  Headlines across the country told of the spectacular raid and shootout in the hills of Eastern Kentucky and how the slain bureau agents were bravely performing their duties before they were cut down.  A Lexington Herald Leader article states that the initial court appearances of the men accused was set for January 2, 1923 at the US District Court in Lexington; however, not many records relating to the trial, which started in 1924, are readily available.  It is known that Charley Ballard was initially acquitted of his murder charges in Menifee County, but was later sentenced by the US District Court to six years in prison for his actions. 

This event was known as the Menifee Moonshine War, the last great and spectacular raid in the area.  Other illegal distilleries were raided and destroyed in the hills of Eastern Kentucky throughout the Prohibition Era, some with heated confrontations, but none would result in the loss of life as the Ballard raid.  Agent Robert Duff was buried in his hometown of Owingsville, Deputy David G. Treadway was buried at Machpelah Cemetery in Mount Sterling, and Agent Guy Cole was interred at Mount Pigsah Cemetery near Bowling Green.  These men are added to local and National fallen officer memorials as a reminder of their public service.  Today, clandestine moonshine operations still exist, and agents of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, FBI and other local law enforcement agencies still battle the 'shiners' nationwide.  The lore of the moonshiner takes on a nostalgic and cultural feel, mixed with legend and romanticism, but still a very dangerous and illegal activity.
Agent Robert Duff's grave at Owingsville Cemetery

Special thanks to Felicia Stalder for inspiring this story, and the pictures she sent!

For more information about this incident, go to 


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