Highlands consummate historian Ran Shaffner always has the preservation and promotion of Highlands and its history in mind.
At the December Town Board meeting, he introduced the Legends and Lore Program which was launched in 2015 in New York State. The program promotes cultural tourism and commemorates legends and folklore as part of cultural heritage.
Everyone is familiar with the highway markers designating historical aspects of an area – Highlands has three – but the Legends and Lore Program is relatively new and is just now being expanded nationwide, with North Carolina, the second state to get involved, said Shaffner.
He asked the board to give permission by letter for the Highlands Historical Society to pursue inclusion in the program to commemorate the Moccasin War which took place in Highlands in 1885.
A red sign, 18 inches by 30 inches and about four feet off the ground would pinpoint the place the war took place – in the center of Main Street at the 4th and Main intersection – with a sign that will read: The Moccasin War was fought here in 1885. Moonshiners from Georgia laid siege on Highlands to rescue their folk. War ends with a threat and a prayer. Pictured at the top of the article is an artist’s rendition of how the “legend” sign would look at the beginning of the 4th Street block.
And the legend according to Shaffner?
“In 1885 when Highlands was 10 years old, it was dry. Georgia was wet. People who founded Highlands 10 years earlier, were sober, God-fearing people, from New England and were concerned about their youth in town who were being corrupted by bootleggers coming over the Georgia border selling them white lightning.
“It isn’t that Highlands didn’t already have stills in the area, Highlands was ripe with stills, but the difference was ‘this is local, that’s not.’
“So, the town fathers decided they wanted some protection for their youth, so they got a U.S. revenuer to come. He went down to Georgia and crossed the border and when he got there, he arrested two youths, Abram Henson and Bob Billingsley and brought them back up and jailed them in Highlands Inn across the street from The Central House (now Madison’s Restaurant). The people in the Moccasin Township got wind of this and decided to declare war on Highlands.
“They raised an army of 18 volunteers led by four Billingsley brothers and included some of the Anderson boys and they marched on Highlands and bivouaced in the Central House and laid siege on the town.
“For three days shots were fired back and forth across the street. Mayor Bascom declared martial law. At the end of the third day, Tom Ford climbed up on to the roof of the Highlands Inn. When he saw Tom Ramey peak out from behind the Central House, he shot and killed him. Hostilities stopped. The Billingsley boys and the Andersons took their dead compatriot back to Georgia leaving a note saying ‘We are going to give our compatriot his last rites and we will return to fight to the bitter end.’
“This struck fear in the heart of the Highlanders. Mayor Bascom recruited people from as far away as Whiteside Cove, Cashiers Valley and in Hambourg, which is now under Lake Glenville, and they prepared to defend themselves.
“In the meantime, the Billingsley brothers and the Andersons realized they didn’t need to go to Highlands and risk their lives. The only road into Highlands was the Walhalla Road (NC 28 south) which went through the Moccasin Township. They sent word that they were going to blockade the road and shoot anyone who came by.
“No one dared to break the blockade. After a month went by, the larders grew empty and supplies were needed from the outside world. They tried to figure out how they were going to survive.
“Cliff Lovin was a civil war veteran and was known for his courage. He volunteered to go and break the blockade. He hitched up his horses, got into his wagon, put his rifle across his knees and headed for the Georgia border.
“Just as he was rounding Pine Mountain, he saw four Billingsley brothers walk toward him single file each carrying a Winchester rifle. He knew that they believed making moonshining was their right and their right in which to indulge. He also knew they wanted to avenge the death of their compatriot Tom Ramey.
“Likewise, the Billingsley brothers also knew Lovin was a Civil War veteran. They were aware of his prowess and knew he would not back down. So the two sides started coming toward each other.
“Now, Lovin wasn’t a religious person. He didn’t really believe in the efficacy of prayer but he decided this was a good time to try.
“As the Billingsleys came toward him – not being a religious man but being rather agnostic, he wanted to cover all his bases. So, he prayed …’O Lord, if there is a lord, please save my soul, if I have a soul, from going to hell, if there is a hell.’
“But the Billingsleys kept coming. So, he tried another prayer he heard in church a long, long time ago … ‘O Lord for what we are about to receive, let us be truly thankful.’ But they kept coming, so he tried one last prayer … ‘O Lord, if you’re not going to help me at least don’t help the Billingsley boys either.’
“At this point… and this is the ‘legend’ part, as the Billingsleys walked to the boundary line and he came to the boundary line, they silently passed by and disappeared into the forest and the war ended.
“Lovin traveled down to Walhalla, got the supplies and came back. When asked why it happened that way, his response was, I don’t know if it was the threat or the prayer that did it.”
“In the end, two things are sure. One, the war ended. Two, moonshining did not. In these isolated areas, moonshining will continue as long as one Appalachian Mountain remains to curve against the moonlit sky. I think this is worth commemorating,” said Shaffner.
Clearly more than a legend, the event was written up in numerous newspapers of the day including the front page of the New York Times, the Harrisburg Telegraph, the Asheville Weekly, and others.
The Legends and Lore Program is funded by the Pomeroy Foundation. With no cost to the town, commissioners agreed to send a letter in support of the project.
By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper