Millie Carson Sparks (1899-1985)

THE MAY 24, 1935, Roanoke Times headline read: Woman Pilot of Whiskey Cars Is Placed On Stand. Millie Carson Sparks testified on May 23 for a half hour. “So great was the interest with which her appearance has been awaited that it served to overshadow a full day of varied testimony . . .” The experience was a disappointing one for most, including Anderson, who saw his hopes of a great mountain heroine die with her appearance on the witness stand. “Mrs. Carson, whose name became so widely known here in the palmy [sic] days of the bootleggers during Prohibition, appeared minus the diamond that once gleamed in her teeth. She was dressed in a white outfit with hat and shoes to match, the dress having brown ruffled sleeves and collar gathered in front with a large cameo pin.

Mildred “Millie” Sparks was a tall, thin and sophisticated young woman whose appearance and mien belied her Southwestern Virginia upbringing. Sparks had originally married a big-shot bootlegger and soon became the principal driver for the operation, driving pilot cars as the caravans of booze careened and smashed their way through the hills of rural towns and into the conduits of the major cities, becoming a celebrity in the process. They said Sparks had movie-star looks and diamonds set in her teeth.

The woman she presented to the world gave no indication of the kind of upbringing she experienced as a girl.

She would have been out of bed at dawn. Summers came on the mountain farm then winters. From the time she was six or seven, she went, for a few months each winter, to a mountain school.

From the time when she was tall enough to stand up to the stove she got up and got the breakfast. In the winter there were corn bread and hot hog meat, and in the summer there were greens. Then she had to clean up the dishes and sweep out the house. She said that the house had no floor. There was just the hard earth, clay she said, made hard and even shiny by much tramping of bare and unwashed feet. To sweep out the house with a homemade broom her father had made, to wash the dishes – mend and wash her father’s clothes.

To school for a few months each winter, for four or five years – to learn anyway to read and write. Spring, summer, fall, and winter. There were plenty of creeping crawling things. “We had lice and bedbugs,” she said. She thought, when she was a child, they were companions every one had.

When she was sixteen she decided she could take no more of the life of back-breaking work and ran off to Raleigh and found work in one of the textile mills. Eventually she met the men involved in the bootlegging and married one.

No one around called the thing “bootlegging.” That might as well have been a foreign word. “You mean blockadin’, sir? What blockades?” Nobody ever said “moonshine” either. White Lightning. White Mule. Moon. Stump Whiskey. Mountain Dew. Squirrel Whiskey. Fire Water.

She had a little girl, Bessie, and chose to retire from her husband’s business, which was becoming increasingly dangerous and unprofitable by the early ’30s.  It wasn’t long before the Feds shut down the entire enterprise, culminating with the longest trial in state history.  She died 50 years after giving testimony in that trial at the age of 86.

 

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f. d. leone

Songwriter who likes to write about music of many styles.

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