Aquilla “Quill” Rose, who writer George Ellison called a “Civil War veteran, fiddle player, storyteller, moonshiner, and hunter,” is the first of several famous or infamous moonshiners in the Smokies region who will be featured in this column. Dan Pierce in Corn from a Jar: Moonshining in the Great Smoky Mountains (GSMA, 2013), identified Rose as one of the key North Carolina 19th century producers of illegal whiskey, distributing his product as far away as Knoxville.
After the war Rose lived as a squatter with his wife, brother Jacob “Jake” and several children on paper company land on Eagle Creek, North Carolina. He claimed to have picked the location because it was close to the Tennessee state line. If he was pursued by North Carolina authorities, he was able to slip unnoticed into Tennessee. Although Rose lived deep in the Smokies with only a sled trail leading to his house, his prowess as a hunter, storyteller, and moonshiner brought him to the attention of several writers over the years.
In Heart of the Alleghanies or Western North Carolina (1883), an entertaining treatise on the history, stories, and people of the area, authors Wilber Zeigler and Ben Grosscup wrote about their visit to see Quill and Jake Rose on Eagle Creek.
The Rose brothers are known as men good-natured, but of desperate character when aroused. They have been blockaders [another name for moonshiner]. Living outside of school districts, and seemingly of all State protection, they refuse to pay any taxes; having only a trailway to their door, they pay no attention to notices for working the county roads. Thus recognizing no authority, they live in a pure state of natural liberty, depending for its continuance upon their own strength and daring. . . One of them once killed his man, in Swain county, and to this day he has escaped trial. They are men of fine features and physique. Both wear full, dark beards; long, black hair; slouch hats; blue hunting shirts, uncovered by coats or vests, and belted with a strap holding their pantaloons in place. High boots, with exposed tops, cover their feet and lower limbs. They are tall and broad-shouldered.
Zeigler, Grosscup and two companions arrived in the early evening. They were served dinner by Mrs. Rose then sat around the fire while Quill told hunting stories. Everyone was up before dawn the next morning. Before a breakfast of cornbread, coffee and buttermilk could be served, Quill produced a jug of whiskey declaring, “I reckon we’ll have a dram afore breakfast.” After the dram and breakfast was consumed, Quill pulled down his rifle to head out hunting.
Several years later, Horace Kephart, a neighbor to Quill Rose, wrote about him in Our Southern Highlanders (first published in 1913), one of the most influential books to be written about the Smoky mountaineers. Kephart was intrigued by Rose’s hunting stories but was no stranger to the lure of distilled spirits; Kephart also wrote extensively about moonshine culture.
Kephart wrote that moonshine was rarely aged because the demand for the product was immediate and storing whiskey increased the chance of detection and arrest. He related a story that was told to him about Quill Rose on the subject. “A slick-faced man from Knoxville,” said Quill, “told me once that all good red-liquor was aged and that if I’d age my blockade it would bring a fancy price. Well sir, I tried it; I kept some for three months—and, by godlings, it ain’t so.”
A few years before his death in 1921 at age 80, Rose was visited by an unidentified writer from the Hardwood Record, a lumber industry publication. The writer defended moonshiners in general saying that they are “a great respecter of the law” as long as it is a just one. The short article used Quill Rose, who lived on land owned by the R. E. Wood Lumber Company, as an example of a harassed but innocent individual.
According to the Hardwood Record writer, Rose was periodically arrested and brought before a judge in federal court in Asheville but was always released because no one could prove he made moonshine. Rose knew how to make whiskey but preferred the “pursuit of peace and happiness in occupations that are not interdicted by the government.” At the time of the visit, Rose showed the writer the remnants of a still “that surely hadn’t been in operation for many years” as proof that he no longer engages in the production of moonshine. In contrast to the description offered by Zeigler and Grosscup many years earlier, the writer concluded that Rose was “a quiet, peaceful old chap.”