I walk among crowds of people at the Moonshine Festival in New Straitsville, Ohio. It is Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of summer. The festival celebrates the town’s notoriety, where illegal moonshine was (and perhaps still is) made and sold. Moonshining came to prominence here in part as a response to underground fires that ended coal mining in the late 1800s.
I walk up and down Main Street, listening. There is a Johnny Cash recording in the background. I eavesdrop as people sell and buy tickets and t-shirts and funnel cakes and onion petals. I hear electricity buzzing, chains clinking, clapping, laughter, motors, coughing, yelling, a baby crying, a car radio, wood hitting concrete, hissing air, growls, sighs, birds, revving, banging, pounding, sneezing, a dog sniffing.
I hear fragments of conversation, too:
–– ... I said no! –– Good blowin’, honey! –– ... Ah, you know what I didn’t bring? –– ... My grandfather... –– Onion petals, oh yeah! –– ... That’s crazy.
–– For our safety and your safety... –– This one’s five bucks! –– I told her...
–– They go fast? Yeah, a little fast. –– I’m not doing that!
–– Shit, I’m down there... –– ... Just waitin’ to hear the fire trucks.
–– Now, I got two things... –– They’re probably all the way down at the end...
–– What do you wanna play? Video games are half off! –– Some of them boards out there... –– ... He took it, put another one up there... –– Hodgey! –– ... You can walk with Sarah.
–– Wasn’t nothin’ we didn’t do when we was kids, wasn’t nothin’...
–– ... Yeah, we’re doing good, getting ready to head out of here.
A parade begins: local fire trucks, a few muscle cars, and a host of festival queens from around the state. The announcer’s singsong baritone provides a running commentary as he introduces each queen: “And here’s our very own Moonshine Queen... Hello ladies! ... That is one serious dress you’ve got on, I’ll tell you that right now...” The festival and parade are ways the region remembers and defines itself, and the queens get their names from local industries and attractions such as the “Railroad Festival,” “Old Settlers Reunion,” “Ohio Hills Folk Festival,” “Coal Festival,” and “Indian Mound Festival.”
Afternoon shifts to early evening. I cross the street and walk into a parking lot full of carnival rides. The parade recedes, but its sounds do not disappear all together. They merge and overlap into noisey machinery, chains moving, and empty cages whirling overhead. A man yells to me, “Hey, hey, hey! You ready to play? I’ll let you win today!” Only a few children are on the rides, and bored attendants latch and unlatch them into gyroscope spaceships and spinning teacups. A child yells above the din, “I wanna go on the rocket! I wanna go on the rocket!” Another says, “Hey, can you buy me a wristband?”
Now it is night. I slip behind the parking lot and walk up wide, irregular steps toward Robinson’s Cave. The cave sits recessed on a wooded hill above town. Up here, I can just make out the lights below––orange street lamps and fluorescent green porch lights, dirty yellows from concession stands and rainbow hues drifting through plastic overhangs, the harsh whites of halogen work lights and ground floor businesses, and the warm glow seeping through second floor windows––all coming together to meet the clear night sky above.
I stand in the cave’s shallow opening. A slow, steady drip of water. The tree canopy stirs overhead. Sounds drift up to me, muffled and blurred, echoing off the cave walls. The crowd below cheers as tag team wrestlers pound and hurl each other across a ring. Carnival and country music swirl together and are lost inside the ear of the cave. Shadows move across the walls. The cave transforms these sights and sounds and I am transformed, too. I am confused, a little dizzy, and need to sit down. I lose track of time. The past leaks in, and I am lost in it:
I remember the miners who met in this cave in 1890, secretly banding together to form the United Mine Workers. I remember another, more contentious secret meeting in 1884, when a group conspired to set the mines on fire in a futile effort to end a strike. I think of my great uncle, a bootlegger from nearby Junction City, who must have passed through New Straitsville many times over with a car full of moonshine and bathtub gin. And I think of my grandfather Mordecai, who grew up just two miles away in Shawnee, how he might have come here to walk, to visit friends, to get into trouble.
I cannot help but feel these people here, their voices still faintly resonating, scattered waves of sound gently touching my own ears so many years later. I reach out to touch back, groping and fumbling and straining in the dark, never quite successful yet never fully discouraged, either. I listen. I listen in, and out. And in so doing, I am not alone.
Brian Harnetty. Columbus, Ohio.
Heard Tell is an audio component of the Looking at Appalachia project. We seek to expand the project to include other ways of sharing stories. We encourage the submission of interviews, field recordings, soundscapes, etc. inspired by photographs from the project as well as other regional influences. We hope to use this platform to expand our community, encourage collaboration, and get to know our neighbors better. Learn more about how to submit here.