Amos Owens

From the files of Stephen M. Lawson
Amos is linked to the Freeman and Painter families through
two of the marriages of his son Lawson OWENS, and the marriage of a first cousin.

The following article and article portion about a colorful and legendary figure of Rutherford County, NC history are from:

The Heritage of Rutherford County
North Carolina, Volume I, 1984
Published by the
Geneological Society of Old Tryon County
P. O. Box 938, Forest City, NC 28043


The legendary Amos Owens, blockader of
Cherry Mountain. Photo courtesy of Euell B. Cole.

Visitors to Cherry Mountain, a horseshoe-shaped mountain range, in northeast Rutherford County, North Carolina, will discover its valleys and coves are used in warm seasons as farms or as campgrounds for Girl Scout, church, or other outdoor groups. Only during the cold seasons, when the forested slopes have lost much of their profuse foliage, can one notice that the occasional, moderate snows outline ancient logging roads and walking trails which criss-cross the frosty rises. On all sides of this group of mountains many small creeks slowly issue forth, and if traced upstream to higher elevations, waterfalls, gurgling brooks, and springs can be found in great numbers. Both Nature and Time have been kind to this area, for natural beauty, much the same as it was in this nation's early history, abounds in this rather primitive, out-of-the-way place. Forty or fifty years ago or even during the current period, a visitor, traveling along paved secondary roads, which encircle these tree-covered slopes, would find neither much traffic, cars or people, nor the glow of many lights from the sparsely located homes. Occasionally, year around, one might notice a stream of blue smoke billowing up from a chimney where someone is preparing a meal.

Cherry Mountain, earlier known as Flint Kill, is actually a rather remote part of a larger range of mountains known as the South Mountains. The larger and higher main part of the range is located a few miles to the north in Burke County. The main range is the location of the wilderness area now designated as South Mountain State Park. The name Cherry Mountain" was given to part of the range because of the abundance of wild cherries which grow along its many slopes and partly because of an early resident of the mountain who used those cherries to produce a popular drink that became famous wherever partakers were able to find it available.

The Castle

Amos Owen's "Castle" on Cherry Mountain.
In Owen's words, it was ''three stories long and one story high."
Photo courtesy of Euell B. Cole.

A modern visitor to quiet and civil Cherry Mountain is unlikely to realize that well over one hundred years ago, this area was largely the personal realm of one of Rutherford County's most colorful and unusual characters. His home, located high up on the side of Cherry Mountain, was known as "The Castle." Here, and in many nearby spots, usually concealed by mountain laurel and rhododendron bushes, Amos Owens produced "cherry bounce,'' much to the delight of his customers and eventually, much to the dismay of government officials. The potent beverage, flavored by the fruit of the prolific cherry tree of the mountain, became renowned as far away as the Mississippi River.

Despite fame in its time, "cherry bounce" and Amos Owens would have faded from history except for the efforts of a schoolteacher at Polkville in Cleveland County. In 1901, M.L. White was asked by the aging and then law-abiding but forever unlettered Owens to record his picaresque career on paper. A fragile copy of the original White's A History of the Life of Amos Owens (Cleveland Star Job Print, Shelby, North Carolina) is in the North Carolina Collection of the Wilson Library at Chapel Hill. That pamphlet is the major source for this account although copies occasionally surface in Rutherford County.

Writing as "Corn Cracker," White begins with Amos Owens' birth about 1821 on Sandy Run creek in northeast Rutherford County, North Carolina. Owens' father was characterized as worthless, but his grandfather named Amos was said to have fought as a patriot in the Revolution at Kings Mountain. He was said to be a, ''... deadly marksman of the McDowell contingent."

Young Owens attended school only a few days. "Amos at this age showed aversion to restraint, and a few applications of the harness tug caused him to 'sidetrack' on the road to learning.'' Hired out before his ''teens'' as a "hewer of wood and drawer of water," he learned the ways of the forests and mountains of his birthplace.

Owens' Marriage

Owens' marriage as a young man was recalled in White's words:

Amos Owens was married once and but once, to Miss May Sweezy. When his time came to marry he got on his horse, "Old Hickory" and rode over to old man Sweezy's. The old man was worming and suckering tobacco, and on seeing Amos, got off the original observation. "Light and look at her saddle" - "I han't got time," said Amos. ''Where is Mary Ann?'' "She has gone to peel some walnuts to dye some cloth, what's up?" "Oh, nothing, particular," said Amos, we thought we'd marry this evening." "Marry! the devil" Quoth the old man, pretending as is usual under such conditions, to be greatly surprised. "No I lust wanted his daughter,'' quoth the irrepressible Amos, "and had no idea of marrying the whole family."

The old man grinned, humped himself over a tobacco plant, and Amos hunted up the future partner at his joys and sorrows. She was found, bare-headed and barefooted, coming with a basket of walnut hulls. This she delivered, and making no other changes in her toilet except to put on her home made shoes and ''wagon cover" bonnet, she gayly mounted on ole Hickory behind Amos. They hunted up a justice of the peace and stated their business. He soon pronounced the ceremony, and was then and there tendered a coonskin and a quart bottle of brandy. He threw the coon-skin on the floor and then and there took an observation of the heavens over the end of that bottle. Amos brought her to his three story house, which was not three stories high but three stories long, and she that evening milked the cow and set a hen, while Amos made an ox-yoke and repaired his wagon harness. That is all there is in the way of romance about his marriage, and it is to be observed that he has been kind to his family and through all his privations and vicissitudes, she has been a help-meet true as steel.

Owens began to acquire land in and around Cherry Mountain in the mid 1840s. Many people apparently considered the Cherry Mountain lands to be of little value. One seller, evidently glad to be rid of the property, "used to relate that every crow that flew over Cherry Mountain had a canteen of water and a haversack of rations strapped to his person.'' Owens was said by White to have acquired eventually some 1000 acres and "caused the desert to blossom as the rose," confounding those who had considered Cherry Mountain to be worthless.

Owens began his career as a distiller well before the Civil War in the era of tax free spirits. In that conflict he served two periods of enlistment and survived captivity nearly to die of typhoid fever shortly after parole.

Owens' career as 'blockader' commenced when from his very sickbed he returned directly to his idled distilleries. A heavy tax had been imposed on spirits during the conflict. His attitude was, "... he had fought the government, been imprisoned by the government, been starved by the government, and he didn't propose to divide profits of his whiskey business with the government."

White continued his account by describing Owen's Cherry Mountain domain as ''in twelve miles of Rutherfordton, twenty-five miles of Shelby, both good raw abiding towns, by common consent ... no man's land as far as the enforcement of law is concerned.'' Here would be "the abiding place of cherry bounce, ... made and warranted by Amos Owens ... a compound of 44 blue steel whiskey, honey and cherry juice." The "Corn Cracker" said of the mountain:

Here could be breathed the pure air of heaven, and here as pure limpid water as ever gurgled from the bosom of mother earth rippled down the delves of the mountains. Here grew the famous cherry trees, some three feet in diameter, and are found nowhere else; that yielded every June a crop of fruit remarkable for its size and flavor. Here was found the ideal honey producing flavors of poplar, chestnut and sourwood, and here was the ideal range for the cattle of a thousand hills. The home of the cow, honeybee, pure water and invigorating mountain air, and not excelled on earth for the fruit tree and the vine.

On the mountain in June for many years as the cherries ripened Owens held a ''cherry bounce" festival with food, rugged entertainment and physical contests. The proceeds from the celebrations were hidden by Owens on the mountain. Legend has it that some of the money caches have never been unearthed. Despite the isolation of his Cherry Mountain hideaway, Owens was not spared the efforts of the revenue officers to end his illegal career. The "red legged grasshoppers" destroyed his stills on many occasions and Owens paid several fines and served active sentences.

Before His Time?

Sawmill at Amos Owen's place.
Steam from the sawmill boiler was used to run the still at the left of the picture.
Photo courtesy of Euell B. Colo.

Was Amos Owens, fabled late 1800s blockader of Cherry Mountain in Rutherford County, born a hundred and fifty years too soon? Today would his skills at distilling illegal spirits and unlawfully purveying "cherry bounce'' be directed instead to lawful production of grain alcohol and to the 1980s energy crisis concoction called gasohol? Consider this report of 1979:

More than 200 TarHeels - some of them ex-moonshiners - have requested federal permits to operate stills to make alcohol for gasohol ... can't tell you the number, but there are some ex-moonshiners who are legitimately producing or requesting to produce alcohol," said Charles Crumpler, an official in the Atlanta enforcement office of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms .... Although some former moonshiners have applied, Crumpler said he felt most applicants will be honestly producing gasohol." (Gene Wang, United Press International, in August 28, 1979, Raleigh News and Observer).

Merry Amos Owens would have appreciated the irony of the government he fought for so long issuing permits for the legal distillation of alcohol to be used for machine rather than human energy. Owens who lost so many battles with the "red legged grasshoppers'' would have been amazed to find that the government which had hounded him so now deemed other problems to be more pressing than that of Amos Owens.

Amos Owens, some seventy years old, did agree in 1890 in federal court in Charlotte to abandon his illicit manufacture and trade and to cease running the federal agent "blockade'' with his bottled products oft-times hidden under ''taters'' and chestnuts in a beast-drawn wagon. He returned to Cherry Mountain to live into the early 1900s in his frame "castle" which he boasted was one story high and three stories long. Owens was never known to fire his distilleries again.

Surely, had Amos Owens lived, practiced his illegal skills and then repented in this energy-demanding era, he too would have turned his talents and ingenuity to gasohol experiments. Why the "cherry bounce king" of Cherry Mountain might even have become a high paid consultant to a fuel research organization!

The "Corn Cracker" in the preface to his 1901 chronicle of the life of Amos Owens wrote, "With the passing of Amos Owens, the present condition of affairs and the mandates of society will soon relegate the blockader to the past - there a dim and fading monument of a semi-barbarous age.'' White's prophetic words were realized as today Amos Owens' monument is Cherry Mountain, named for his beloved cherry trees and "cherry bounce" fame.

Note: This article appeared originally in the Rutherford County News, and appears here with the author's and editors permission.

- Dr. Ben E. Fountain, Jr.

Map showing location of Amos Owen's "castle".
Courtesy of Rutherford County News.

Legendary Distiller
[portion of article on the Hollis Community]

Any history of the Hollis area would include Amos Owens, the legendary distiller of Cherry Mountain. Owens made a concoction called ''Cherry Bounce,'' made of corn whiskey, crushed, ripe cherries and honey. Old-timers claimed its medicinal value, and people from all over Rutherford County, parts of Western North Carolina, and possibly other states, knew of Amos Owens and Cherry Mountain. M.E. 'Corn Cracker" White wrote a biography of Amos Owens, printed in 1901. He wrote of Owens' return to Cherry Mountain after fighting in the Civil War, and of his encounters with the despised revenuers, or 'red-legged grasshoppers'' in the words of Zeb Vance. These revenuers were always after Amos Owens for the tax due them for the spirits he manufactured. And his name was called often in the courts of Asheville, Charlotte, Marion or Rutherfordton. And he always showed up to answer the charges.

John Parris, author of Roaming the Mountains, gives an interesting, readable account of Owens:

''He was a character never to be forgotten. He was a leprechaun of a man, round and red of face. He wore a shiny stove-pipe hat. He wore no tie to hide his collar button. Homemade galluses hitched up his baggy pants, and his coat and vest hung loose. He talked in a high, crackling voce.... And come June when the cherries were ripe there was a celebration.... Folks came from all over.... And there was always a fiddle and there was dancing.''

And John Parris wrote of Amos Owens' last years:

"The years sped by and he became a fixture in the court of Judge Dick. When he reached his seventies he was sent away to prison for a short term. But when he came out this time he was a changed man. He joined the church and slopped making Cherry Bounce. A few years later he died, well over eighty. But his Cherry Bounce is still remembered. And the cherry trees still grow here on his mountain.''

Amos Owens, the baron of Cherry Mountain, wore the beaver hat presented him by friends
when this picture was made. The original is a pencil drawing from a photograph
and is owned by Charles Davis, grandson of the legendary character.
- Copy by Joe Walker

- Scott Withrow

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