My grandmother was Lena Estell Miller. She was born in 1886 to Herman and Tilla Horine newly arrived from Hesse, Germany. After the death of my grandfather, she came to live my parents and me in 1958. Grandma stood 5’2″ and on her best day weighed 100 lbs. During the 1930’s, Grandma, like many others in southern Illinois, supplemented the family income with the product of her still. Grandma’s specialty was Applejack.
Now, Grandma was a straight and narrow Christian lady of the old school. But, after a hard day, she did like a little nip of her applejack. When Grandma moved in, she brought a number of jugs with her and stored them in our basement. In all, Grandma must’ve brought about 25 gallons of applejack.
My Grandfather Miller was a farmer near Cairo, Illinois, not too far from where the Mississippi met the Ohio. When the Great Depression hit, money got scarce. Everyone in that area, the Illinois Ozarks, knew how to make a still or knew of someone who did. Running a still at that time, in that area, was a proven method for a second source of income. The demand for ‘shine did not end with prohibition. In many areas the demand increased. Grandma’s ‘shine brought a nice income through the mid-30’s until Grandpa decided to move further north and get a job in the mines. Grandpa, in addition to farming, was a skilled blacksmith with skills in demand in the mines.
In 1936, Grandpa and Grandpa moved to Benton, Illinois in Franklin County. There were six coal mines near Benton and four mines six miles south in West Frankfort. There were also numerous apple orchards in Franklin County as well. By this time, the demand for Grandma’s product had diminished and the efforts of the revenuers had increased. Grandma decided to retire from the ‘shine business—except for a little for herself.
When Grandma moved in with us, she brought along her still. It was small; standing no more than four feet high. Grandma set it up in an old henhouse right next to Dad’s one-acre apple orchard. Every September, Grandma would pick up the best of the apples that had fallen in the orchard, peel and mash them, and for the remaining weeks of September, the old henhouse was infused with the aroma of apples and applejack.
Years later, when Grandma had passed on, Dad and I cleaned out the basement and we found some of Grandma’s old jugs. One still had some applejack. Dad said he wanted to show me something interesting. We took the jug out behind the garage. Dad cleaned out an old tuna can and filled it with applejack from the jug. He lit a match and tossed it into the tuna can. To this day, I can still remember the bright blue flame dancing on the surface of the applejack.