The theme of this year’s 108th Founder’s Day in Zephyrhills is “Timber, Turpentine and Moonshine.”
The trio of products played an important role during Zephyrhills’ early days.
Vast pine and cypress were abundant throughout the area and provided raw materials for building. Besides timber, they provided turpentine and related products.
Greer’s Lumber Mill, operated by Jim Greer, was the largest employer for the first two decades and fortified settlers with resources to build their cracker homes.
The Great Depression closed Greer’s Lumber Mill.
But, the town began to flourish again after 1932, when I.A. Krusen purchased 13,000 acres and opened the Krusen Land & Timber Company.
Later, Camp Number 39 of Hercules Powder Company was opened in Zephyrhills and had the distinction of being the largest employer in the city from 1946 until its closing in 1962.
Farmers and ranchers within a 35-mile radius contracted with Hercules to remove pine stumps, which were processed into products such as rosin, turpentine and pine oil, as well as byproducts used in paper, paints, varnishes, adhesives, asphalt emulsions, gun powder and dynamite.
Although Zephyrhills was less distinguished for moonshine than neighboring communities, such as Wesley Chapel, an occasional settler turned to moonshine stills, as well as charcoal kilns and cash-crops, to subsist.
When Prohibition banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol, moonshine stills provided an alternative source of liquor. Even after Prohibition ended, occasional moonshining continued until the 1950s. Several families still hold moonshine recipes.
Marlo Hilton, a hometown girl and 1998 Zephyrhills High School graduate, remembers using a metal detector at her family’s ranch to explore the area to the west of her home, where Stanley Ryals, her great-grandfather, had his moonshine still.
“They were a tough breed,” said Hilton, who spoke lovingly of her iconic great-grandfather, who died in 2000.
Ryals used profits from bootlegging, as well as the sale of sweet potatoes, to purchase 640 acres in the Zephyrhills area. Later, he opened Zephyr Lumber and Saw Mill where he logged, cut and sanded timber.
Ryals contributed much to the city, serving as president of the chamber of commerce in the late 1950s and as a founding member of Zephyrhills Noon Rotary Club, where he had a 30-year perfect attendance record.
Ryals’ father-in-law was Wesley Wells, the chief of police in Zephyrhills.
His grandson, Boe Hilton (who is Marlo’s father and a 1971 graduate of Zephyrhills High) observed that his grandfather understood people and knew how to build upon their strengths.
The most notorious bootlegger in the area was Clarence Lane, who described himself, in a 2005 interview, as one of the top 10 moonshiner/bootleggers in Florida.
Lane said during the 1930s many of his customers were law enforcement officers and judges.
Lane said he began moonshining as a teenager, learning the skills from his father. His first still was in Kathleen. Later, he moved to Zephyrhills.
At age 19, Lonnie Tucker from Wesley Chapel, worked in Zephyrhills for I.A. Krusen during the day in the Lumber Company. He also operated a still near the current location of Saddlebrook Resort.
Tucker later worked at Moody’s Hardware, in Zephyrhills, for more than a quarter-century.
His daughter, Anna Jo Bracknell, will be on hand at Founder’s Day for one of the porch talks at the Howard B. Jeffries house.
She plans to share stories about moonshining during her 1 p.m. talk on March 10.
Zephyrhills’ 108th Founders Day
When: March 10 (Parade begins at 10 a.m.)
Where: Downtown Zephyrhills in the morning and early afternoon; Zephyrhills Airport in late afternoon
Cost: Free admission
Details: There will be an old-fashioned hometown parade; food and drink available for purchase; children’s activities, a skydive demonstration and fireworks to cap off the day.
By Madonna Jervis Wise
Published March 7, 2018