Moonshiners Respected But Feared Lee Stewart
Robert Lee Stewart was the son of Alexander Hamilton Stewart and the grandson of Jasper Byd Stewart. Robert Lee Stewart was born Febuary 4, 1873 in Carr Creek, Letcher County, and died February 3, 1963 in Rowan County. He is buried in the Lee Cemetery in Morehead, KY.
Lee Stewart, Morehead was the most feared man in all of Kentucky by moonshiners and traffickers in white lightning during prohibition days. Judge Stewart, now past 80, is almost a legend in the mountains. This story was written by Henry P. Scott for the Floyd County Times.
Years ago when Lee Stewart was a resident of Prestonsburg he went into the old Modern Drug Shop and looked around for a place to sit down. It was a beautiful fall day, one of those in which the morning is cool and you let the fire, kindled earlier in the day, die out. He saw an old flat-topped laundry stove and immediately parked himself on it. He got off that hot spot with alacrity.
In a life of four score years that little incident was a very minor one but it was symbolic of many hot-shots Stewart had been in and was yet to be in as a federal prohibition agent. His career as a moonshine still raider began in his native Knott County and lasted half a century.
Today, Lee Stewart lives in retirement in Morehead and writes a column of local historical lore for newspapers. He is without doubt the best informed man on the genesis of Eastern Kentucky families and his knowledge of feuding and fighting from Rowan to Wise is all encompassing. A student of history and a moonshine raider! The two seem incompatible until it is learned that some of that history is vivid in his mind because he was a participant. Then, too, his early life in Knott was surrounded by events of feuding and fighting that intensified his interest in mountain lore.
He was born February 4, 1873, on Carr Creek, near the present post office of May, the son of Dr. Alexander H. and Margaret Pigman Stewart. His mother died when he was three and he was reared by her parents. He went to the local schools, such as they were. When he was 12 he attended school for four or five years on Beaver Creek. In 1887 his father was elected to the State Senate and they moved to Prestonsburg where he opened an office. Young Lee went to school here for two years. In 1889 Stewart and his only brother, Burt, who was a year younger, went to Hinman and studied under Prof George Clarke.
After a trial at teaching in his native Knott and the saving of every salary dollar but eight, he went to the University of Kentucky. His teaching career lengthened a few years after that, but in 1896 he was elected enrolling clerk of the State Legislature. In 1899 he was graduated from a law school in Danville, Indiana. He really began to enter his life’s work, when he was appointed storehouse keeper and gauger in a government distillery. In 1900 he began a five year service as deputy internal revenue collector. Part of his duties was the raiding of illicit stills. He went to Oklahoma after that, held down a government claim for a while but fell ill of appendicitis. An operation in 1906 for appendicitis was a serious affair and it was 14 months before he took the bandages off.
He married Lucinda Everage at Hindman in 1901 and kept store in his native county seat for a time. In 1910 he left the field in which he spent most of his life and served Congressman John W. Langley as secretary. The full recitation of the many and varied jobs he held would become wearisome, and it may suffice to state that he served as Representative to the State Legislature, U.S. Commissioner and Assistant Secretary of State. All of these jobs were not sinecures. Some of them held plenty of hot-spots.
Perhaps one of the hottest spots he was ever in was on the head of the Licking River in late December, 1925. Moonshiners ambushed the little party of posse men of which Stewart was one. The first volley went wild.
In corroboration of their statement that he never knew fear, oldsters of Right Beaver always recalled that, after the first shots were fired, Lee Stewart declined to seek cover with the rest of the posse and walked up and down the road, looking for his adversaries in the woodland. Being a good target, the shiners blasted a second time and a shot caught him in the leg. Although the bone was not broken, the wound was painful. He dressed the wound himself and rode several miles through the mountains to Bosco.
This occasion was one of the few in which Lee Stewart knew fear. The mute had never seen a train and the sight of the iron monster threw him into terror. He ran with the wounded officer into a barbwire fence. Escape from severe laceration by the barbs was narrower than the escape from a moonshiners bullet.
In his long career as a raider there were incidents of great humor, too, and in one of the jokes was repeated all over the mountains. Dan Hayes was Sheriff of Knott County and enlisted Stewarts aid to cut up a still on the Laurel Fork of Quicksand. They started out on a Tuesday, the season dry and the danger of a forest fire great. They found the still, knocked the mash barrels apart, and considered burning them but due to the great danger of forest fire left them, hoops and staves, in scattered disorder.
On Thursday, thinking the shiners might have started operation anew, the two went back to Quicksand. Nearing the location, they heard the banging of hammers as the amateur coopers put the barrels back together. Crawling under the brush, the two officers approached within a few feet of two moonshiners. When the rebuilder of the barrel had completed his job he sat down and surveyed his work and with venom in his every tone, blurted out: Now, you Dan Hays, cut this up again.
In 1922 occurred a raid in Menifee County that brought death to two officers and a moonshiner. U.G. McFarland, federal agent attached to the office of Sam Collins, prohibition director for Kentucky, led raids against the moonshiners on East Fork of Slate Creek. Informers said some of the Ballard family, chiefly Charley Ballard, were operating a distillery on a large scale.
It was December 9 when Agents R. E. Duff and D. R. Carter left Mt. Sterling in an automobile with a posse for the first raid on the Ballards. Agent Stewart was not along on the first raid. Duff carried a search warrant for the premises of Jeff Ballard.
At the Jeff Ballard home the warrant was read to him by Duff, but the old moonshiner averred fervently there were no stills on his place. Duff placed Jeff and Albert Ballard in the custody of two other officers and began a systematic search of the premises. Agents Duff, D. M. Carter and W. P. Treadway, Jr., found a path in the rear of the Ballard home that led across a creek bottom. Following it, they came to the foot of the mountains and saw what at first appearance was a huge brush pile, but upon close observation they discerned an aperture through the brush to a door.
An adequate description of what the officers found is given in the report to Sam Collins, prohibition director, by U. G. McFarland: They found a moonshine distillery in a house dug out of the mountain side with double log walls in front with a space of about two feet between the log walls, which was filled with dirt and rock dug from the mountain side in making the excavation for the still house. Small logs or poles were laid from this double log wall across the place excavated in the mountain side for the still house with one end of the logs resting on the double log wall in front and the other resting on the steep mountain side above the excavation. The house was covered with tar paper roofing, with leaves and brush thrown over the roof, giving it the appearance of a brushy spot upon the mountain side.
There was a door a little to the right of the center of the double log wall in front with a shutter made of oak lumber one inch thick and hinged to the left door facing to open to the left on the inside of the still house. This still house resembled a fortification as a ball from a high powered rifle could not penetrate this still house at any point except through the door shutters.
The three officers approached the entrance of the still house and finding the door closed. Duff put down his rifle, picked up a short pole and began to beat on the oaken shutter. Suddenly the door flew open, shots issued from the darkened interior and Duff fell, mortally wounded. Carter and Treadway jumped aside to take cover and when the other posse men arrived some of them tried to crawl near enough to retrieve the wounded Duff. Each time an effort was made to get near more shots met them. They reluctantly retired to Mt. Sterling and an undertaker went to get the body of Duff.
The next day, Sam Collins, with Lee Stewart and eight other prohibition officers, left Lexington. Arriving at Mt. Sterling, they were joined by five more. All journeyed to the Ballard farm on the East Fork of Slate Creek. The body of Duff had been removed by the Mt. Sterling undertaker and the still house was empty of men. The agents destroyed a huge still, 17 barrels and fermenters, 1,400 gallons of beer, 40 gallons of moonshine and a large assortment of moonshine making accessories. One still and a worm had been removed and Stewart nosed out on the trail of the man who had carried them away. He found them up near the top of the mountain, hidden in the brush and leaves.
Meanwhile, with Stewart searching the mountainside for the still, two other agents were combing the area across the field for a pistol lost by one of the previous day’s posse. Suddenly a shot came from near the top of the mountain and B. F. Ubanks and J. W. Phillips, the two posse men, took cover.
McFarland continues his report: I then proceeded to the top of the mountain in company with eight or ten federal agents and posse men, intending to go around and if possible get in behind the parties who fired the shot from top of the mountain at agents in the valley a few minutes before. When we reached the crest of the mountain and were walking slowly and cautiously on the mountain top towards where we thought the shots came from that were fired at the agents in the valley below, another shot from a rifle fired apparently close to us. We could not tell whether it was in front or on either side of us. We instantly dropped down flat on the ground in order to shield ourselves until we could determine where it came from. After lying there a minute or two and hearing no other sound indicating that ambushers were near, we continued to walk cautiously on the narrow ridge-like top of the mountain and when about forty or fifty yards from where we were when we heard the last shot, we found the body of Dave Treadway, one of our posse men who had gone directly up the mountain to the top from where the shots were fired instead of following us at an angle of about 45 degrees.
Tread ways incaution had cost him his life. He had emerged from the cover of the protecting timber to the top of the ridge and a moonshiner had fired a rifle ball into him at close range. He was shot squarely through the head.
It was getting late in the afternoon and as there was no prospect of taking the murderers this day, the body of Treadway was carried off the mountainside and Stewart and his fellow posse men returned to Lexington. That night a conference was held. The agents were in an angry mood and the cooler heads advised a wait of a few days before they went back to Menifee County.
On Dec. 15, at 2 o'clock in the morning, the officers again left Lexington for Slate Creek. Twenty men were in the posse including Lee Stewart. J. M. Butler and Mat Sanders, of Pike County, were along. This time they were determined to arrest the murderers and bring them out. They traveled by car to near the post office of Means. There they sent the cars back to Lexington and started to walk. The early morning hours were cold, a slow drizzle fell and the agents slogged through the mud with grim lips.
They arrived at Cedar Grove, about a mile and a half from the Ballard farm. They arrested every man they found and took them along. They were not giving any informers an opportunity to pass the word of approaching officers to the Ballards. They reached the home of Albert Ballard, brother of Charlie and Bob. It was now a little after daylight. There Albert Ballard and his cousin, Willie Ferguson, were arrested. They went on to the house of Jeff Ballard but found no one at home.
Down in the hollow, about half a mile from the home of Albert Ballard stood the cabin of Willie Ferguson. Some of the officers approached it, leaving the prisoners in company of others. Nothing was found there, but an old log house stood about 175 yards up the hollow. The agents approached cautiously, some going around to the rear, others walking up to the front. Mat Sanders tried the front door but found it fastened. Beating it open with his rifle butt, he entered the open door. Shots met him. He fell backwards from the door and the agents took cover. While Sanders had been trying to enter the front door, agent F. G. Cole was entering the back. He, too, was met with shots and fell, shot over the left eye and twice through the body. He fell inside.
The agents now formed lines on either side of the log house and began to fire at the cabin door, the windows and every aperture. Lee Stewart remembers now with a vividness undimmed by the years the flash of the crackling guns, the returning fire of Bob and Charley Ballard from inside. He remembers how J. M. Butler, of Pike County, grabbed his hat when a bullet passed through it. He recalls the posture of agent W. C. Kimmel, stretched behind a log, while bullets whistled nearby. Stewart admits to no heroics, admits only he was there.
After about 150 shots were fired by the agents, the fire from the house ceased and after the lapse of only a few moments, Chancy Ballard emerged running from the door, seeking to reach a woodland about 200 yards away. Shots followed him, he fell twice, got up each time to empty his automatic at them. He reached the woodland and sped away.
The agents now approached the cabin door, peered in to see the body of Bob Ballard lying crumpled on the floor, his brains oozing out. Agent Cole was lying wounded a few feet away. He was sent to a Lexington hospital and the body of Bob Ballard was taken to Mt. Sterling.
The remaining agents now took up Charley Ballard’s trail, following it to the home of Henry Reffett, where they found the fleeing man had his wounds dressed and ridden a horse towards Mill Creek in Bath County. Inmates of the Reffett house said Charley Ballard was wounded in the right foot and in the side. The agents continued the pursuit but darkness came on and they returned to the scene of the battle. There they met agent Ray W. Eastey who had found and arrested Jeff Ballard. All walked back to Cedar Grove, met the cars that had returned from Lexington and started back.
The next day the posse again left Lexington for the East Fork of Slate Creek. Arriving at Cedar Grove they met Ben Wells, sheriff of Menifee County. Wells had a message and a proposition from Charley Ballard. He was wounded and would submit to arrest by Wells. The officers agreed if Ballard would be delivered to the jailer of Fayette County. Wells went to Mill Creek, brought the wounded Ballard to jail.
Two days later, Lee Stewart wrote U. G. McFarland, his superior, reciting a list of the moonshining equipment seized and destroyed on the Ballard farm. He concluded his letter: I am going on a raid with John Collins in conjunction with the Virginia authorities in the vicinity of Jenkins today. After the holidays, if you need me, make the request and I’ll certainly be glad to go at anytime, anywhere. He had taken the Ballard trouble in stride, was eager to take the trail again.
Chancy Ballard was tried for murder at Frenchburg but was acquitted. He fared much worse, though, in U. S. district court in Lexington, where he received six years in prison.
Lee Stewart received only one serious injury in all of his raiding days and that wasn’t from a moonshiner’s gun. It was from an automobile. He was in Elliott County waiting for a bus one snowy day, but the inaction palled and he began to walk down the highway. A moonshiner driving down the road saw him and drove his car at him. His right arm was broken.
In later years of Lee’s life, when he became less active as a revenue agent, his interest switched to politics. He was the Republican nominee for Clerk of the Kentucky Court of Appeal in 1936 and again in 1939, but was defeated both times.
Stewart, 81 now, dotes on his grandsons, who are either getting an education or have gone to the armed services. He averted on his birthday to his assembled friends that he had not a lick of sense yet. To which of course we disagree. A man who has destroyed hundreds and hundreds of stills, followed moonshiners and murders through the mountain fastness engaged in pitched battles and other sundry and wild adventures and survived to a ripe old age without mortal mishap must have been shrewd, and wary, cunning like a fox and smart as a whip.
His favorite poem is What Hayseed Said to Si:
Say, Si. don’t fuss and prowl at life, and furrow up your brow,
You don’t know what life is my boy.
Lee Stewart knows.
Retyped from Rowan County News, Centennial Edition May 10, 1956 by William B. Stewart on July 7, 1994
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