Lonsom Raney (1828-1923)

Lonsom Raney is the son of Scots-Irish immigrants to this country in the early 18th century.  Originally the family spelled their name “Rainey” but Lonsom chose to drop the “i” and spell his name “Raney”.

The Scots-Irish were transplanted (literally the “Plantation” by King James I in 1608-1609) Scots in Ulster, then Ulster Scots in colonial America, they became known as the Scots-Irish, settling in and often moving on through Pennsylvania, and later Virginia and all through the Appalachian mountains.  The Raineys moved into the North Georgia mountains.

Scots-Irish tended to be impetuous and hotheaded, having been marginalized back in Ulster, they defied any easy definition. In fact, they bristled at others’ labels for them—”Irish,” “Irish Presbyterians,” “Northern Irish,” or even “Wild Irish.”  Already twice transplanted, they had acquired a migratory habit. Once acquired, such habits are liable to persist; when the constraints of government caught up with them, these wayfarers often chose to move on.

In Colonial America, a whiskey-making tradition came ready-made with the arrival of Scots-Irish settlers from Northern Ireland’s Ulster region, beginning in the 1700s. They brought with them their taste for the drink and an understanding of how to make it.  Lonsom Raney’s grandfather had always made his own whisky back in Scotland, and brought his still with him wherever he moved: first to Ireland then across the ocean to Virginia.

When Lonsom was a child, moonshine doubled as a cough suppressant and sore-throat treatment. To get little ones to tolerate whiskey, adults added something special to the cup: “It was pretty common with everybody in the mountains to put the old-fashioned peppermint-stick candy in it,” says Vernon Raney, Lonsom’s great-great-grandson (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Lonsom claimed to drink corn whiskey nearly every day of his life, often telling anyone in his vicinity, that moonshine was the only thing that kept him alive. He started making it while still a child. “I went to helpin’ my daddy make likker when I wuddn’t but nine years old,” he told Vernon. “My daddy just let me go to the still with him and I watched him and learnt it myself.”

Over the years, the law mostly left the Raneys alone.  But Lonsom wasn’t always lucky.  On at least four occasions, he served time in jail and in prison for violating liquor laws and evading taxes.  But as it turned out, being locked up wasn’t bad for business. “That’s a good place to get customers,” Vernon said of his great-great-granddad’s time behind bars. “He would just take orders and fill them when he got out.”

Lonsom Raney died in 1923 at the age of 95.   He had four descendants who carried on the Raney whisky tradition: Ransom (son), Royal (grandson), Virgil (great-grandson) and Vernon (great-great-grandson).  Vernon would marry Molly Motts, who would later transition their bootlegging business into a drug enterprise.

“Lonsom Raney 1828”

Lonsom Raney 1828
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

1828 Lonsom Raney was born
Had a copper still and made clear corn
His great-granddad brought it from Scotland
Hid it in the hills on this Georgia mountain

Help’d his daddy make likker, Lonsom told
When he wuddn’t but nine years old
They’d load the wagon right at the still
Run that shine all through those hills

Let me be, my sons and me
I’m just doing what I can
Let me be, the boys ‘n’ me
I’m just livin’ off the land

He made it himself when his daddy died
Drank corn whiskey every day of his life
Claimed moonshine was what kept him alive
Lonsom Raney lived to ninety five

Let me be, my sons and me …

Five generations have used that still
From Ransom to Royal, then Virgil
Lonsom died in nineteen twenty-three
Now it’s Vernon’s time with the recipe

Let me be, my sons and me
I’m just doing what I can
Let me be, the boys ‘n’ me
I’m just livin’ off the land
I’m just doing what I can
Lemme be free Mr. Gov’mint man

© 2017 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Vernon Raney (1911-1997)

Vernon was the first Raney to grow to adulthood in Mississippi, the rest of the Raney family settled in north Georgia as early as 1748 when Thomas Rainey, Lonsom’s grandfather was born (Lonsom would later change the spelling, dropping the “i” from the name).

The first Raney, Lonegan, a Scots-Irish immigrant, entered colonial America in 1743 at Virginia as an indentured servant. As soon as he was released from his labor, five years later, he traveled, with his pregnant wife, through the Appalachian mountains eventually settling in the north Georgia mountains.  His first son, Thomas, was born in a small log cabin in December 1748.  The Raney family always made whiskey and in fact the copper bowl still they used was brought to America by Lonegan (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Vernon made one major change in the moonshine, he began to age it in oak barrels, producing a more refined product which he sold to Memphis big shots at a premium price.  Vernon remained a bachelor until the age of 49 when he married Molly Motts, just 23 years old, and pregnant with their first son, Lonsom, or Lonnie as he was known.

gettyimages-109913282Molly Raney was an ambitious young woman, seeing that the bootlegging business was doomed as liquor laws were repealed making it easy to purchase whiskey.  She also realized that the younger generation was interested in marijuana and other recreational drugs.  Her oldest, Lonnie, became the county sheriff, the other son, Ronnie became Maggie’s right hand man in their drug distribution business.  Molly oversaw the entire distribution network as Ronnie handled the day-to-day operations.  They moved large amounts of pot and meth all through Mississippi and Memphis, with Lonnie responsible for insulating the enterprise from law enforcement (see song, “Louanne in Vicksburg“).

Over the decades from 1957 through the ‘70s Vernon became more and more detached from day-to-day reality, turning a blind eye to Molly’s drug business while he continued to make small batches of his whiskey and selling a little but mainly giving it away to a group of his old friends who would gather at his old mountain cabin drinking, playing cards or dominoes; smoking cigars or spitting tobacco juice on pot-bellied stove and telling tall tales (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).

In the spring of 1997, at the age of 85 Vernon Raney died in his sleep after producing the last of his tobacco gold whiskey.

The Knox Family : Ulster Scots

Matthew Knox was the first of his family to cross the mountains and enter Mississippi.  The covered wagon he drove pulled a milk cow while two sows and a collie dog trailed along, and his wife sat in the back. Under the tarpaulin, among the farm implements, resting neatly next to a jug of clear whiskey medicine, was a small bible his grandfather, Jeremiah Knox, had given him in 1862 when he went off to fight in the Confederate War. Together Matthew and this bible had survived the war and would stay together throughout the tense aftermath.

Matthew cared nothing for the book itself. He placed no stock in anything as speculative as religion and was even suspicious of those who preached from a bible despite coming from a family that boasted of no fewer than six Presbyterian ministers.  No, the significance of the book lay solely in the list of names written in a careful scrawl by different hands over more than 200 years: his Knox progenitors.

Matthew went to Meridian, Mississippi in 1866, just after the end of the Confederate War in which he’d served.  He’d heard that the new territory was ripe for an industrious young man looking to make his mark.  A new start is what he needed, after his grandfather’s farm had nearly burned up when a spark from the fire under a pot of molasses jumped loose and set fire to the dry field grass which had seen no rain for more than six weeks.

Matthew only heard about the fire well after the fact.  When he rode up to the farm, months had elapsed since that dreadful day of the fire that had taken not only grass and trees, but his grandfather’s life as well.

Jeremiah and his daughter-in-law Cora had fought that fire all afternoon and into the evening, digging fire breaks and throwing the dirt on the fire.  But a steady wind fueled the fire that leapt over each break they created and burned everything on the near side short of the house and barn before finally burning itself out at the springhouse.  Jeremiah had inhaled too much smoke; burns to his head and hands, as well as the stress of the physical exertion, it combined to be too much for the tough 90 year old man.  He lingered for almost three weeks before dying in his sleep.

Matthew’s father Josiah did not arrive back at the farm until mid-1865, almost a year after the fire.  However, once the full impact of the devastation had sunk in, his father told him, “you go; your mother and I might have just enough strength to rebuild this farm even if it takes the rest of our lives.  You’re still young, at the start of your life and can make something of yourself in a new territory.”

This Matthew did.  With him into the wilderness of Mississippi he brought the bible with the list of names: a tether to his past and his Ulster family.

Family Bible

Tristan Knox, Scotland, (1622), to Ulster in 1656
Angus Knox, Scotland, (1645), to Ulster in 1656
Jacob Knox, Ulster, (1670)
James Knox, Ulster, (1701)
Nathaniel Knox, Ulster, 1722, later to Pennsylvania in 1756, then Carolina, 1783, d. 1799
Bartholomew Knox, Nathaniel’s son, Ulster, 1750, Pennsylvania after 1756, Carolina 1783, d. 1829
Jeremiah Knox, Nathaniel’s grandson, Pennsylvania, 1774, North Carolina in 1783, dies in fire 1864
Josiah Knox, Jeremiah’s son, 1804, North Carolina, d. 1886
Matthew Knox, Jeremiah’s grandson, North Carolina, 1833, Meridian, Mississippi, 1865, d. 1909

The first name in the bible was put there by Matthew’s sixth great-grandfather, whose name was unknown to him, but this anonymous Scotsman notated the name of his eldest son, born in 1621 in County Galway, Scotland.  The name he wrote was Tristan Knox.

Tristan was born during the first great wave of migration from Scotland to northern Ireland begun by King James the VI  known as the Ulster Plantation.  His father decided against relocated across the channel.  However, Tristan left Scotland in 1656 along with other Scotch Presbyterians.  The Tristan Knox family went to Donegal, where a few  kinsmen had staked out some land.

Several generations of Knoxes lived on this land in Donegal, the names written under Tristan Knox on the list were Angus (b. 1645), Jacob (b. 1670), James (b. 1701) and Nathaniel (b. 1722).

But by now, Scots in Ulster were feeling the pinch between the Irish Catholics and the English Anglicans.  Scots left Ulster in growing numbers for religious tension but they also left for economic reasons forced upon them by rising rents imposed by English overlords. Those were the sticks driving them out, the carrots were stories of a bountiful and rich the land, with no overlords or religious persecution, that waited for them across the Atlantic.

Almost exactly 100 years after Tristan left Scotland for Ulster, Nathaniel left Ulster for America.

Nathaniel Knox did what many Ulster Scots did in order to find a ship for America, he signed a contract for himself and his family for five years of labor.  Indentured service was common and often the only method a tenant farmer in Ulster could pay for passage across the ocean.

The Knox family entered the New World through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was the largest Colonial city, and a common port of entry.  The service contract Nathaniel Knox had signed placed him on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania, within view of the Allegheny Mountains.  Nathaniel’s son Bartholomew was just six when they stepped off the boat, and by the time the family had worked out of the indenture, he was nearly a teenager.

Marriage was going to be a possibility for Bartholomew in a few years, so Nathaniel started looking for some acreage of his own. The first Knox farm was a 66 acre tract of Pennsylvania land that was covered with rich topsoil and timber.  Nathaniel increased his holdings whenever he could and over the next twenty years amassed nearly 200 acres of productive land.

Also over that time Pennsylvania was becoming more crowded and government intrusion becoming more and more of a bothersome thing for Scots-Irish immigrants and something of which they were decidedly intolerant. Eventually, Nathaniel and the Knox family packed up and moved once again in 1783, this time to North Carolina. Along with Nathaniel came Bartholomew’s growing family, whose oldest son, Jeremiah, at nine years old was the first native born American Knox.

Nathaniel and Bartholomew invested the money from the sale of their Pennsylvania farm into even more acreage in Carolina, where there were fewer people and less government.  They might still be on the east side of the mountains, but they were well into the frontier.

This is the land where Jeremiah grew into a young man.  The Knox farm produced tobacco, corn, sugar cane, and barley; and provided a good living for the Knox family.  Jeremiah married a local girl, Kathleen Kerby, in 1799.  Kathleen lost two infants before finally carrying to term a boy, whom they named Josiah after Kathleen’s father, Joseph, but also following in the Knox family tradition of choosing biblical names for their male children.

Josiah began helping his father with the farm work when he was eight years old and by the time he was 25, he was ready to take over the day-to-day operations and find a wife.  That was Cora Adams, whom he married in 1830.

Our story began with their son Matthew, who married Willa Thomas in 1855, had their first child, Georgiana in 1856 and together they went to Mississippi, in the tarp-covered wagon with the bible, to continue the Knox family adventure in America .  Having experienced the precarious nature of farm life, at the mercy of the elements, Matthew chose instead to operate a mercantile store in Meridian, Mississippi. Later he became quite successful as a cotton agent in Jackson.

Matthew and Willa were the grandparents of Elijah “Lige” Langford, and the great-great-great-great-grandparents, on his mother’s side, of Levi Hooper (see songs “The Langfords and the Littlejohns” and “Mildred’s House of Values”).

Although he knew of the bible, Levi Hooper was only vaguely aware of the entire history of his mother’s family.  He’d heard how the bible had been carefully handed down from Scotland all the way to his maternal grandmother Marjy Littlejohn, the daughter of Emily Langford and George Littlejohn.  Mamaw Littlejohn in turn gave it to her daughter Mildred Langford Motts, Levi’s mother.  Mildred was saving this bible for her oldest grandchild, if and when Levi ever found a nice girl and settled down.

“Nathaniel Knox was an Ulster Man”

Nathaniel Knox was an Ulster Man
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Nathaniel Knox was an Ulster man
A staunch Presbyterian
Sold his labor for a six week voyage
With a wife and two small boys

Traced his line to 1621
To his great-great-grandad Tristan
They came to Ulster from County Galway
Nathaniel Knox will sail away

It was a small thing that he took
A list of names in a holy book
Every Knox that’ll come along
Will write more names of his own

Nathaniel Knox went to Carolina
With a grandson Jeremiah
Who was the first Knox American-born
In seventeen seventy-four

It was a small thing that he took …

It ain’ rained for six weeks now
Jeremiah watched his fields turn brown
One minute he’s cooking molasses from sugar cane
Then everything he’s built goes up in flames

Matthew Knox was Jeremiah’s grandson
He left Carolina for Meridian
Mississippi soil is rich and dark
Matthew Knox has an Ulster heart

It was a small thing that he took …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Owen McLemore (1791-1868)

Owen McLemore was born in Tennessee, but his family originally came from Ulster Ireland, Scots-Irish, landing in North Carolina in the mid-18th century. Owen’s grandfather, Allen McLemore came to North Carolina as a young boy in 1854, he stayed there acquiring some land not far from his father’s farm and also lived as a sustenance farmer. His son, Jason was the McLemore who left North Carolina , crossing the Appalachian mountains and making his way to middle Tennessee by 1788.

Owen McLemore was born in 1791, the second child to Jason and wife Lucy; a girl had been born in 1789, but only lived a few months. Owen grew up on his father farm and learned everything he needed to become a farmer himself before marrying Anabel March in 1812. Together they worked a sustenance farm in Tennessee and began to build  seeing their first son Allen McLemore come into the world on Christmas Day 1812.

Anabel gave birth to six other sons: Jason (1813-1876); twins Edward (1815-1861) and Leeland (1815-1887); Jacob (1818-1863); Donald (1824-1884) and Arthur (1832-1834),  before dying in 1832.  After Donald’s death in 1834 the family migrated to West Texas where Owen died in 1868 at the age of 77 (see songs “Blinkin’ Back a Tear” and “My Anabel“).