Caryville, TN — Each morning, Hack Ayers greets breakfast guests at the Hampton Inn hotel in this tranquil Tennessee town nestled within the Cumberland Mountains. If you didn’t know the story, you’d never guess that this tall, silver-haired, affable Southern gentleman, dressed impeccably in a starched white shirt, bolo tie and white straw hat, harbors a family secret — although the hotel’s decor may have given you a clue.
“My daddy got killed in a moonshine raid, and people around here knew it,” he tells me in his Tennessee drawl, recalling the day in 1943 when his daddy got into a shootout with state police who came to arrest him for making and selling White Lightning — illegal corn liquor.
White Lightning’s roots run deep in these Tennessee hills. “My dad was a third-generation moonshiner. My grandfather was a moonshiner. My great-grandfather was a moonshiner.” A preponderance of corn and a paucity of cash left locals with few economic options. “It was the only cash crop that most of us had. Mountain people — my dad — either moonshined or coal-mined.” And working conditions in the mines were unhealthy and dangerous. “My dad told my mother, ‘I worked in the coal mines two weeks, and I’ll moonshine ’til I die.”
It’s a vow that Hack’s dad — John “High Johnny” Ayers — kept, although the end probably came sooner than he’d planned. That fateful day — October 29, 1943 — 7-year old Hack had accompanied his father to Kentucky where they bought a pickup truck load of whiskey and transported it back to Tennessee. Later on, after unloading the whiskey in their barn, state police arrived with weapons drawn. “My dad made the mistake of pulling a double-barreled shotgun. Broke into a shootout; he was hiding behind a car. There was 32 bullet holes in that car,” Hack recalls. “I ran over to where dad was. The trooper ordered me to halt or he’d shoot. I was 7 years old, and I stuck my arms up; I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do.” “High Johnny” had died instantly, shot through the heart, leaving Hack’s mother to raise the family and run the tourist court/restaurant she had owned with her husband. “I had a wonderful mother. She raised three teetotallers, non-smokers and Christians.”
I’d guess that Hack Ayers is one of the most interesting people you’ve never met. An auctioneer and businessman, former county clerk and state legislator, he owns a real estate and auction business, as well as Caryville’s Comfort Inn and Hampton Inn. He and his wife Tomi have been married for over 50 years. They’ve got 3 daughters, 7 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild. Hack rode a Harley-Davidson Road King until last year, when his wife convinced him it would probably be a good idea to sell it. He drives a bright-yellow Chevy SSR pickup around town; he tells me its distinctive color helps keep him in line, since “everyone knows my car.”
Like Hack, his Hampton Inn is one of a kind. “Hamptons don’t allow what we’ve got. They just have a fit every time they do an inspection here. But there are 1600 Hampton Inns in the world, and we’re ranked number six! And I think like what we got is what the people want it to be.”
Hack has turned the Hampton into something of a moonshine museum. There’s a couple of antique cars and parts of an old still on display out front. Inside, the walls are decorated with his collection of photos and historical memorabilia from his political days and his daddy’s moonshining days. One of the collection’s showpieces is the brown leather jacket, complete with bullet hole, that “High Johnny” wore the day he was killed, mounted in a glass frame.
Hampton corporate may not like it, but Hack’s guests seem to love it. Hack’s business card states he’s in charge of “Guest Services/In-House Interior Decorator.” If you stop here, ask for Hack and tell him the Travelin’ Gringo sent you. If he’s around, I’m sure he’d love to meet you.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
4459 Veteran’s Memorial Hwy.
Caryville, TN 37714