Heritage Mills, Interview with Don T. Payne – Albemarle County

This film was directed and produced by Lucas Lyons as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

The Payne Family: Memories of Winemaking & Moonshining

by Lucas Lyons

Don Payne is a member of the Payne family, whose roots in Central Virginia have been traced back as far as 1845.  The Payne’s were millers, farmers, and even homemade wine makers and Don has documented much of their family history and the rural history of Central Virginia through his two books A Legacy of Rural Virginia, Part I & II.  Through his research, extensive interviews with family members and hours sifting through dusty files at local historical societies, Don has become something of a magnet for stories, anecdotes, and knowledge of Central Virginia folkways in days past.

In my interview with him, some of the most interesting stories revolved around the production and consumption of fine, fermented beverages.  Don’s grandmother, Susie Payne, was a noted winemaker in Fluvanna County and produced a well-known wine called Peach Hen.  To this day, Don has never figured out how she made this wine in the jug itself instead of in a separate crock, transferring it to a jug after filtering out the “musk.”  Her Peach Hen was well known in the area and her living was supplemented by some sells of the product to locals.

As a youngster, Don particularly remembers snowy winter days when his Uncle Tom Payne and Ed Harlow could not perform their usual carpentry work and would come to this grandmother’s house to cut wood for her.  In his young mind, Don figured that these were just some of the best men he’d ever met to come out and cut wood for free all day for his grandmother.  As he got older, he figured out that the two men made such frequent visits to his grandmother’s smokehouse on these particular days that they were “nipping on homemade wine all day.”  Surely, this wondrous homemade beverage was consumed only to keep the cold off of the men on these snowy, frigid days.[1]

Susie Payne certainly did not have a monopoly on alcohol production in the Payne family.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Don’s Great Uncle Jack only dabbled in farming, his main income coming from foraging honey and especially selling homemade liquor.  Don remembers him as a tall, good-looking man who habitually wore a wide-brimmed fedora hat and bibbed overalls.  Supposedly, the chief of police in Charlottesville at that time was one of his biggest customers and even brought his squad car to Fluvanna County to pick up a keg of homemade whisky now and again.  Don recently searched around the branch where his Great Uncle Jack’s still once stood and found a mason jar, a pool of stream water that was still dammed, and even a metal hoop from a whisky keg.  The freezing stream water was used to cool the still after the hot evaporation process, creating the slow drip characteristic of moonshine stills as the liquor cooled and condensated.  The fire keep the moonshine still heated and operated had to be tended at nighttime by Uncle Jack’s helpers—usually a couple of young men who lived close by.  Yet, frequent encounters with ghosts in the area scared off Jack’s help regularly.  Much more detailed stories like these can be found in Don Payne’s book series, A Legacy of Rural Virginia.


[1] All information in this story is based on an interview with Donald Payne at the Jefferson Area Board for the Aging , Charlottesville, VA on 2 March, 2012.  I was assisted in this interview by Hannah Magnum & Sarah Culver, two University of Virginia students.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit http://ien.arch.virginia.edu/courses/food-systems-resources.