Bob Riley and the Bootlegger

After reading James Hunter’s stories of Bob Riley recently, Edwin Garrett sent me an email that included an additional story he remembered his father telling years ago. Here is the story from Edwin:

Bob Riley was the premier jokester in this entire area during the days when logs were rafted down Mitchell’s Creek to the Obey, then to the Cumberland River, and on down to Nashville where they were then sold. Most of the time the rafters had to walk the entire distance from Nashville back to their homes. Bob Riley’s family lived on Mitchell’s Creek, and one time before Dale Hollow Lake was impounded, our family drove down to his home expecting to meet him. Daddy was hoping to buy corn from some of the farmers who owned those rich river bottoms. Daddy drove a 1937 Plymouth that he had bought from Roy Eubank, a Livingston car dealer, so this trip must have been around 1938 or ‘39. I remember that he was very disappointed to find that Bob Riley was not at home, because he was a big fan of Riley and enjoyed telling and retelling the pranks and jokes that he had played on others. Now that I’m old and think back on this trip, I wonder if he really needed to buy corn that badly, or if he just wanted his family to be able to say they had met this famous or, as some might say, infamous person. I would have been 5 or 6 years old and my sister Maxine around 11 or 12.

J.D. Eldridge, a local newspaper publisher and writer of folklore for many years often told and wrote of Bob Riley’s escapades and adventures. He also was a fan of this famous rafter and prankster. This is one of Bob Riley tales often told by Daddy that I believe never appeared in Eldridge’s newspaper articles or in his book, "Cracker Barrel Tales."


As related by my Daddy

The men who piloted and rode those rafts down the Cumberland River had to have been rugged individuals. The trees were topped off and skidded down steep banks and tied together without being sawed into log-lengths. There had to have been great skill applied in this process. It had to be done during high tide so that the logs could flow rapidly and not hang up on the bottom or get caught on the banks of the river.

On the occasion of this story, several men were on the raft floating toward Nashville. I have no idea how many men were required for one raft, and it could have depended on the size and length of the raft. As I’ve heard this story told over and over, I always imagined there were 8 or 10 in this particular crew. Anyway, the men became very thirsty for a "sup" or two of the good moonshine whiskey that they knew was plentiful along these flourishing river bottom farms. But they had one major problem; no one had any money. Bob Riley said that he knew a bootlegger just a few miles on down, and that he would get the whiskey there despite the fact that the man would not sell to anyone on the credit. The crew must have wondered how he would pull this one off, but I guess they knew him well enough to know they would soon be getting a "drank" or two of the moonshine they craved, so upon approaching the farm they turned the rudder and steered the raft into the bank.

Bob Riley then took two one-gallon glass jugs and ordered one of them filled completely to the top with the clear creek water. It was so full that no water line could be seen or, "filled to the brim," as we say around here. He then called for an empty tow* sack, placed both jugs into it, threw it over his shoulder, and took off alone across the flat river bottom toward the bootlegger’s house with his crew scratching their heads and wondering how this was going to work.

Stopping a few feet from the front door of the farmhouse, as was the custom in that day, he called out the man’s name and quickly told his business, saying that he wanted to buy two gallons of whiskey. The bootlegger eagerly guided Mr. Riley to a building behind his house where several barrels stood in a row, each supposedly containing moonshine whiskey. As he raised the top on the barrel he was handed the empty jug from the tow* sack without seeing the full jug of water in the bottom. (*tow sack—a sack made of burlap or as we called it, a grass sack. They were tied with a "tow" string and were very handy for carrying stuff, especially when you were riding on a mule or horse.) The jug was dipped into the barrel and filled completely; then handed to Bob who sat the container in the sack as he reached for the other jug that was supposed to be empty but, in reality, was full of the clear creek water.

"You know this is on credit, don’t you?" he asked as the full jug touched the bottom and he released his hand without bringing it out of the sack. "Oh, no!" exclaimed the farmer, "I don’t sell to anyone without getting paid at the time of the sale!" After a bit of bantering between the two and feigned disappointment on Riley’s part, he reluctantly gave in to the farmer’s demand for cash and stated, "Then you’ll just have to pour this back because me and my whole crew are flat broke." His hand quickly grasped the jug full of water, which he handed over and watched sorrowfully as it was poured into the barrel by the unsuspecting seller of illicit alcohol.

Then, acting as disgruntled as he possibly could, he slung the sack across his shoulder and went stomping angrily back across the field with a gallon of whiskey and an empty jug in his sack. It’s very possible that the farmer never knew or suspected that his moonshine had been diluted with a gallon of creek water. I guess that would have depended on how much whiskey was in the barrel before the water was added, or maybe until another customer complained about "weak" whiskey.

Logs were being prepared for rafting on the Obey River.