Free Range?

An “old hen” found in Harrisonburg was caught before she could work her prohibited ways.

Illustration by Gary Hovland

We all know what necessity is, and under Prohibition she bore many an invention with which people could skirt the new teetotaling laws. Stills popped up in out-of-the-way spots as fast as radishes in a spring garden, rum was run, and bootlegging became a Mob scene, explained a story in Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot in November 2008. 

Virginia, in 1915, was the number three moonshine-producing state, wrote Henry Barrett Chamberlin in Chamberlins magazine in February 1916. And white lightning is so easy to make! “Even a saturated solution of sugar yields a beverage containing as much as 14 percent alcohol,” he wrote, quoting the New York Tribune. That’s proof enough.

Harrisonburghers must have been incredulous on Jan. 26, 1917, to read, on the front page of their Daily Independent, a headline announcing that an “old hen” had been captured the day before on Main Street, a nabbing that must have seemed surreal. The reporter described a “search” for “her” in the northern part of town, but the story soon made clear that this hen was “not of the feathered variety.” Instead, it was a creative invention allowing those pursuits that had been hard to pursue since Prohibition had kicked in a few months earlier. The “old hen” was a fermented, high-alcohol “concoction of meal, water and yeast,” held in a 10-gallon cask made from a recipe devised in West Virginia when that state “went into the dry column.”

All kinds of things were tried. A Norfolk winemaker, ran the 2008 story in the Pilot, that pulled up stakes and left Virginia when we went dry, made and briskly sold a grape juice product called Vine-Glo with this anti-wine caveat printed on the bottle: “Do not take the liquid in this jug and put it in the cupboard for twenty-one days, because then it would turn into wine.” Would people do that? Well, yes. Bubbling cider also enjoyed a new popularity. 

A paper in West Virginia, wrote Chamberlin, published the full instructions for making the old hen, which it explained was invented by the “home folks” in a town whose saloon had been forced to shut its doors. “Take one sack of corn meal, six pounds of brown sugar, four ounces of cayenne pepper, and 10 gallons of rain water.” The ingredients went into a washtub and were mixed thoroughly and allowed to “set,” “open in the sun,” for three weeks. It was the “setting” that gave the stuff its name, recalling for the makers a setting hen. 

These kinds of things never fail to pull up the hyperbole and hearsay. “It is said to have a kick less like a hen than an ostrich,” wrote Chamberlin, presumably well versed in the kick of the ostrich. Per the Harrisonburg article, “it is said that if a person takes several drinks he feels like crowing like a rooster.” One man said that “it is not much on taste, but is quick to intoxicate.” A Mr. Henton, manager of an upcoming poultry show in the region, doubted that this particular “old hen” would wind up on show, which he felt was a good thing, since “she might prove so popular to the judges and spectators that other entries would have no chance.”

The Harrisonburg police “have 10 perfectly good gallons of it and are awaiting a claimant,” read the story. But as tempting as the possibility may sound, it is probable that this old hen ranged free no more. 

This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.

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