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Robert Perry

Robert "Mountain Man" Perry, 71, continues the tradition of making moonshine on his 100-acre farm in Pickens County, SC. The Perrys are part of a long line of moonshiners, Robert Perry says.

PICKENS, S.C. — Robert Perry leans forward in his rocking chair and picks up a small bottle, full of a pink, nearly clear liquid, and he grins.

"That's my medicine," he said. "I call it my 'fountain of youth.' It keeps me young and my muscles limber. I'm 71, but I feel like a teenager."

He does a little jig in the living room of his farm house to prove his point. That 'medicine' is from a generations-old recipe that his ancestors brought with them from Scotland when they sailed the ocean for America in the 1750s.

There's a little moonshine in it, and some herbs. "There's about eight to ten plants in that right there," he said.

Perry used to make this stuff for a larger market. These days he makes just enough for his own use.

"I ran a lot of it back then," he said, looking at a picture of him and a couple of his moonshining buddies. "There weren't any jobs back then. You couldn't buy a job."

Besides, to Perry, he's carrying on a tradition.

And if there's anything that's true, Perry is a man of tradition.

He has a row of cars under a shed that date from 1917 to 1957. His home is a 150-year-old farmhouse, and he's lived in it for 50 years. He still heats and cooks with a wood stove. Sometimes, he'll cook on the open flame. A metal popcorn cooker hangs next to the fireplace.

His 100-acre farm is home to a wild hog and her pigs, a donkey named Jake, and too many chickens to count. There's even a makeshift Western town front that Perry has built on one side of a hill.

"If I get a hammer and a nail, I can put something together," he said.

His Western town looks like it belongs on a Hollywood movie set, and in the middle — in the section labeled the school and the church — the doorway actually leads into a building.

Inside, there's a mixture of old wooden church pews, and mismatched chairs. Pictures hang on the walls and at the front is a small stage. A wash tub bass — a stringed musical instrument — that Perry built out of a 10-gallon plastic bucket sits in one corner.

In another corner is an organ, with a row of church hymnals leaning on it.

On Mondays, when the weather is warmer, a crowd gathers in this place to hear bluegrass music. Perry's been pickin' an instrument of some kind since he was about 15 years old, he said. One of the pictures on the wall is of him and his brother when they were teenagers. Each is holding an instrument.

"I used to write songs for my brother," Perry said. "Growing up in Cedar Mountain, there'd be people in the fields working. When they were resting, he'd sing those songs I'd wrote and they'd give him nickels and dimes."

They grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, just across the South Carolina border. It's where he earned one of his nicknames, the "Cane Creek Kid." It's the name of one of the communities where he lived.

It was in these mountains that he learned about music that could be made with buckets and string, it's where he learned to grow most of what he ate, and it's where he learned how to keep doctors at bay by using plants growing out of the ground.

"I can remember when it didn't take but $4 or $5 a week to buy what we couldn't raise," Perry said.

He learned about herbs from his grandmother, on his mother's side. He learned about building from both of his grandfathers, and about making moonshine from his dad's grandfather.

When he tells stories, most of them are of his grandfather, Will Perry. He's the one who made the moonshine.

The Perrys are part of a long line of moonshiners, he said. They go back to at least the 1750s, here in America. They started brewing in the mountains of Virginia until the law chased them into North Carolina. In those days, the stills were hidden in the woods, out of the sight of the cops.

"My grandfather and his oldest son went to jail for making moonshine," Perry said. "When winter started coming, grandma started getting worried that the family would go hungry. So she baked a cake with a hacksaw blade in it, rode to town on a horse and buggy and took that cake to the jail."

"The guard ate a slice of that cake before he sent it upstairs," he added. "But thank goodness, he missed that hacksaw."

His grandfather and his oldest son, Perry's uncle, escaped from the jail. They hid out in the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina for a while. When things cooled at home, they came back, Perry said.

So was Perry ever caught? Nope, he says with a grin.

Not all of Perry's working days were spent making moonshine. He worked for 35 years at the Singer Company, making Craftsman tools. And in the summers, he farmed when he wasn't at the plant.

It was enough to take care of him, his wife, Marlene, their children, their grandchildren and even a few cousins, nieces and nephews.

"We've raised a dozen kids up here over the years," Perry said. "I worked two jobs for 41 years."

He finally retired from Singer Company in 1995.

Now, he's a regular at the Hagood Mill in Pickens County, he still hosts the "Old Timer Days" on his farm in June and he plays music every Wednesday at the Pickens County Flea Market. His wife, Marlene, was at his side at a lot of those events, until she died in 2009.

These days, he carries a little brown-and-black-haired dog named Blackjack under his arm wherever he goes. "He even goes to church with me," Perry says.

And he loves calling this part of the mountains his home.

"I never have caught up with the time like a lot of people have," Perry said. "A lot of people wouldn't like to live the way I do, but I enjoy it."


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