At least two Pasco County Sheriffs — Isaac Washington Hudson Jr., and Frank Leslie Bessenger — were known to be on both sides of the law when it came to making moonshine in Pasco County.
During a recent presentation at the Pioneer Florida Museum & Village, there was a general consensus that it wasn’t always easy to separate the good guys from the bad guys.
Bessenger, for example, had a blind black man who sold the sheriff’s liquor “…but if you handed him money he could tell if it was a one-dollar bill or a 20-dollar bill” according to Wayne Carter, who remembers helping his family make moonshine when he was a child.
The speakers at this event, Madonna Wise, Susan Shelton and Carter, explained that people from all walks of life got themselves in trouble for selling moonshine in Pasco County — including a former slave, who was thought to be 105 years old at the time of his arrest.
Also, there was Mayor George J. Frese, of San Antonio, who was out on bond after his arrest for running a moonshine still on the second floor of his residence. The home was described as being on “the most prominent corner in town,” according to a news article at that time.
The making of moonshine in Pasco County was a family affair and, in fact, children were known to be used as decoys to lead intruders away from the stills, speakers during the museum presentation said.
Selling moonshine became a source of revenue after Prohibition became the law of the land, through the passage of the 18th Amendment to the United States.
It was illegal to make or sell alcohol after Jan. 16, 1919. The law took effect on Jan. 1, 1920, according to History.com.
The result? Illegal moonshine stills began popping up.
Federal agents, known as “revenuers,” were charged with enforcing the law, often intruding into the lives of moonshiners, such as Preston Overstreet, according to Shelton, the great-granddaughter of Overstreet.
She explains how Overstreet had stills hidden in the woods and swamps along the Withlacoochee River in East Pasco County.
Moonshiners used copper stills to ferment and distill corn, sugar and water into liquor recalls Carter.
“You need 150 pounds of corn and 150 pounds of sugar to make about 5 gallons of moonshine,” he added during his part of the presentation at the museum.
Sometimes, efforts to enforce laws against moonshining turned deadly.
In October of 1922 — three years after Prohibition began — Federal Agent John Van Waters and Pasco County Deputy Arthur Fleece Crenshaw were killed, east of Dade City according to The Dade City Banner.
In an Oct. 6, 1922 account, “Prohibition Agent Waters and Deputy Sheriff Crenshaw Killed,” the Banner reported that the Pasco County Commission put up a $5,000 reward for “the arrest and conviction of the slayers” of Waters and Crenshaw.
Several suspects were questioned.
Overstreet was charged with first degree murder.
His trial began on Dec. 4, 1922.
After deliberating for 45 minutes, jurors found Overstreet not guilty.
“The two men who did shoot Waters and Crenshaw were very close friends to the Overstreets and later married into the family,” explains Shelton. “Both men later became Baptist preachers!”
According to her family’s history, “The Overstreets of East Pasco County (1828-1981),” Preston was an excellent marksman who could hit a 50-cent piece with one shot — and refused to pay monthly “insurance” in the amount of $50 to Sheriff Hudson.
In early February of 1925, Hudson’s chief deputy and the sheriff’s son, also a sworn deputy, had staked out the Overstreet family stills and were hiding in the palmettos according to Shelton’s family history.
Spotted when arriving at his stills, Overstreet suddenly heard, “You are under arrest!”
Before he could turn around, Overstreet was shot in the back.
Gravely wounded, he died shortly later in the woods.
Shelton writes: “The deputies put the body of Preston Overstreet in his car to take into town. On the way in, they stopped at Preston’s home and showed his wife Lizzi what had happened to her husband. Two of his daughters recalled watching the deputies as they opened the back door of Preston’s car and seeing their daddy’s arm hang out that open door.”
In her book, “Images of America: Wesley Chapel (2016),” Madonna Wise describes a “rugged history” of moonshiners in Pasco County and identifies Stanley Ryals as one of that area’s leading moonshiners.
With sugar and whiskey in the house, Ryals had a sleepless night, after spotting a revenuer who was on his property in an unmarked car.
Ryals, like most other moonshiners, decided to get out of the business for good.
“We got rid of everything,” Ryals recalls in Wise’s book. “Well, I might have used the rest of that sugar, but I was done making whiskey.”
Published March 23, 2022