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A train ride through Prohibition-era NC

“We are here on this earth separated from God, so that we might learn and grow.” — Jedidiah Robbins

If there’s anything to the bumperstickers that read “Buy Local” (and I think there is), then that not only applies to the food produced in our region but the literature too.

Here in the mountains of the Blue Ridge, we have a poke full of writers who have gotten national, if not international recognition. I don’t even have to name them as they are now household names. And some of these names just happen to grace the covers (front and back) of Terry Roberts’s novel, The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival, as endorsements for this fine book. “Beautifully and vigorously written” (Charles Frazier). “Immensely gifted writer” (Ron Rash). “Delights and surprises ... in this picaresque narrative of loyalty and love in the mountains of North Carolina” (Robert Morgan). Need I say more?  Yet I will. 

In a novel that does, indeed, take us on a train ride and “picaresque narrative” through the mountains of Western North Carolina, by someone who has deep roots here, The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival (great title) gives us a panoramic glimpse of life here in these mountains during the 1920s and during the Prohibition period in American history. Jedidiah Robbins is a revivalist preacher who heads up a big-tent revival train caravan he calls “The Sword of the Lord.” In an annual circular route through the various counties in Western North Carolina and surrounding states, he and his band of “roustabouts,” as he calls them, bring his version of the Christian gospel and his brand of local corn liquor to these thirsty mountain communities while making a lucrative living in the process. While being something of a “walking contradiction” as Bob Dylan phrased it, Jedidiah is not a charlatan, but a savvy businessman and devoted Christian — even if he is selling illegal bootleg liquor. 

With his jerry-rigged train going from county to county like a carny show — with big top tent and the whole shebang — Jedidiah is more creative than he is criminal. Despite his nomadic “outlaw” lifestyle, he has good taste — in both how his railroad vehicles and tents look, as well as his interest in great literature. Early on, he’s already citing The Call of the Wild by Jack London and Horatio Alger to his 25-year-old daughter, Bridget, who is for all intents and purposes his business partner and “right-hand woman.” Later in the book, there is mention of Shakespeare and Aristotle, among others. Roberts’ storyline — which is local, reader-friendly and evocative of real and believable characters of “souls woven into souls”— starts off early near Marion, where Jedidiah soon finds himself in a McDowell County courtroom having been charged with illegal liquor sales. With the prosecuting attorneys with goods-in-hand and certain of conviction, Jedidiah proceeds to wow both judge and jury with an intoxicating sermon that ultimately leads to a verdict of not guilty and his release from custody with an enduring legacy and fame which will always be referred to as the “Courthouse Saloon Sermon.” 

As part con-man and part spiritual seeker, Jedidiah soon has us on our way over to Hot Springs for a bit of a reprieve after all the courtroom drama, to a side-rail where the railroad cars are being re-painted and he and the crew are enjoying baths at the warm mineral springs. In fact, a lot of the action in this book takes place on railroad sidings or in old railroad barns — for purposes of both rest and refuge. Here, in Roberts’ own words: 

“The troupe has settled into a comfortable pattern during its weeks at the Springs. There is ample rest and hot food, even for the roustabouts. Gabe and his crew repaint the words and images on the sides of the two trains.  Boss and Fingers refresh their supplies of whiskey and brandy and lay in baskets of ginseng roots. Bridget accepts delivery on a shipment of new Bibles, which join the liquor in the Bible car ... she brews Jedidiah a cup of ginseng tea each evening, liberally laced with sugar and a teaspoon of whiskey, which she insists he drink before bed.”

The last half of the book is more focused on Jedidiah’s spiritual evolution in the midst of his adventures and travails here in our western counties as well as the love interests between his daughter and her new beau and himself and a woman named Cassandra. We journey to Asheville to the Masonic Temple on Broadway where Jedidiah gives the “I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” sermon to an unsuspecting and angry audience of well-dressed and well-to-do Ashevillians. 

Then on to Morganton where we meet the famous Baltimore journalist and agnostic H.L. Mencken as he and Jedidiah spend a night in deep conversation over several glasses of brandy. Then on to Hickory and a fiery encounter with the KKK; a respite again in Hot Springs and then on to Johnson City, Chattanooga and Knoxville before traversing the Blue Ridge in a hurricane-like winter storm, only to arrive in a flooded Asheville and a heroic scene where Jedidiah risks his life to save several tannery workers from drowning in a collapsing building amidst a raging French Broad River. Finally we end up in Swannanoa “in the first flirtation of sun following the morning’s rain. The clouds are breaking, and they take pleasure in the clean rays of light striking down on the mountains” and words of deep-set scripture that say: “That which has been is now. And that which is to be hath already been. Love beareth all things. Now and then. In the truth endureth all things. The truth.”

Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the award-winning non-fiction memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods. He lives in Tuckasegee in Jackson County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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