Cumberland Gap mayor fought Gap Trap

Published 4:34 pm Wednesday, October 26, 2022

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Contributing columnist

Although it wasn’t legal, moonshine and homemade beer called ‘home brew’ were available in the tri-state area during the years of prohibition. Revenuers and law enforcement officers aggressively investigated, pursued and arrested moonshiners and bootleggers.

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In 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, but many people continued the use of alcoholic products. This led to a black market for these products leading to difficulty for governmental agencies as they had a greater cost of enforcement but with less tax revenue.

After 3.2 percent beer was legalized in Kentucky, some Virginia officers periodically manned checkpoints on the 250-yard strip of Highway 25E that ran through part of Virginia on Cumberland Mountain. Virginia didn’t legalize alcoholic beverages until later.

In 1933, Cumberland Gap Mayor Robert F. Carr received complaints from citizens concerning the practice of so-called “tourist traps” set up along the western tip of Virginia near Cumberland Gap. Prohibition inspector C. H. Redmon of Virginia did this regularly for the purpose of arresting motorists that the officer deemed to be violators of the dry laws.

Mayor Carr said that arbitrary stopping of cars is illegal and that the inspectors had been told this long ago. The assistant attorney general made several references to Mayor Carr’s letter written to Lee County, Virginia Sheriff Robert Giles. Another letter was written to Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert B. Ely of Jonesville.

The letter to Ely requested information concerning the arrest of Alex Shafer of Knoxville. Shafer was arrested on the 250- yard stretch of Virginia territory that separates Kentucky and Tennessee on Highway 25E. Shafer was arrested and taken to Jonesville where he was kept overnight in jail and fined for transporting one bottle of beer. It was legally purchased in Middlesboro and he planned to consume it at his home in Knoxville where it was legal. He was forced to spend the night in the Lee County jail and pay a fine for having it in his vehicle.

Mayor Carr received assurance from Virginia officials that Tennesseans transporting normal alcoholic purchases would not be arrested.

The mayor ’s complaint to Virginia officials consisted of a 10-page report that referred to Redmon’s reputation in the tri-state area as a fee-grabber. People were aware of his practice of stopping and searching drivers and their vehicles on Cumberland Mountain with or without cause to do so. Other individuals also lodged complaints.

“I must say this practice of unwarranted searches and arrests along Cumberland Mountain which borders us with Virginia and Tennessee is certainly not pleasing to our citizens,” Mayor Robert F. Carr of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee stated. “Citizens of Knoxville and other points were arrested along with residents of our three-state area were stopped and their cars searched last week by Virginia officers,” Mayor Carr’s statement read in part. “It is not approved by our officials and we would like for the public to know this. I have written information from the attorney general’s office in Richmond stating that this will not recur any more from the state prohibition officers.

“In addition, Robert Ely of Jonesville, Virginia, the Virginia Commonwealth Attorney says he does not nor never has approved of this practice and wants to make sure that this practice is discontinued immediately.

“I have also received a positive statement from Sheriff Robert F. Giles of Lee County that he doesn’t approve or never has approved of this practice and the resultant ill will it causes. Furthermore, Sheriff Giles states that if any of his deputies assist in the arbitrary, promiscuous stopping of cars along the 250-yard strip of Virginia highway on Cumberland Mountain he will fire them at once.”

Mayor Carr continued, “Tennessee and Kentucky officers have never followed this practice and hopefully with the above assurance from Virginia officials it will never recur.

“I want to invite the public to come back through Cumberland Gap with a restful feeling that they will not be arrested and not be embarrassed. They will be made to feel absolutely at home. We are open for business here in the tri-state area.”

Here we are in 2022 and Lee County, Virginia Sheriff Gary Parsons, Claiborne County, Tennessee Sheriff Bobby Brooks and Bell County Kentucky Sheriff Mitchell Williams are of one accord.

“We welcome travelers to our beautiful, colorful and historical tri-state area.”

Editor’s note: Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read each week in many area papers. Don’t miss a single issue. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.