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.

Morning mist in Caryville, TN

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.”

Barn where “High Johnny” was killed in moonshine raid

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.”

Copper Still

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.

Caryville, TN


Hampton Inn Caryville

4459 Veteran’s Memorial Hwy.

Caryville, TN 37714


About Glen Abbott
Glen Abbott is a Florida-based travel writer & photographer specializing in motorcycle touring and travel. He is regular contributor to Harley-Davidson's HOG Magazine, and his travel features appear regularly in motorcycle magazines and other publications.

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  1. Barb

    August 12, 2015

    We stayed at the hotel in February and then made it a point to stay again in June traveling from Michigan to South Carolina. The view is amazing. In June we had coffee outside at the tables on the side of the mountain overlooking the lake. There were rocking chairs out front where we met some delightful folks late the evening we arrived. The llamas on the back hill were fun to watch and photograph. The hotel is great, the staff so friendly and caring. Breakfast was great.

    We loved the antiques and everything (photos, newspaper articles, information about the politics and moonshiners) on the walls. We stopped and looked at photos, read articles. It was a fantastic experience. When we were back in June there were fewer things around than in our February stop, corporate Hampton is so wrong…. those photos and memorabilia made this a very special stay. (They had begun remodeling rooms in February and we stayed in one of the remodeled rooms in June.)

    We had the privilege of talking to this man in the morning at breakfast. This was a WONDERFUL place to stay, and we’ll continue to stop here as we travel between Michigan and South Carolina (one of our children moved there).

    I’ll be sharing this delightful stop with lots of other family and friends. I only wish we’d discovered it before my parents passed as my father would have LOVED this. It would have been a vacation destination for them!

    • Glen Abbott

      August 12, 2015

      Thank you for the comment. Hack Ayers is quite a gentleman and the hotel is a very memorable place.

  2. Butch Greene

    March 17, 2015

    A fine gentleman greeted us for morning coffee and offered us a take-a-long bag since we did not have time for breakfast. My wife and I were quite impressed with the friendliness of this fine gentleman only to find out later it was the owner Hack Ayers himself. Now we will always stop on the way back from Florida.


    September 3, 2012

    This Hampton should be #1..not #6…It is absolutely the very best. Thank to Mr Ayers

    • Kay Affholter

      October 17, 2014

      This is the best Inn I have ever stayed at….. Real downhome hospitality….Love the local history….Really enjoyed talking to Mr. Ayers, as he sat in a rocking chair at the entrance of the hotel…but, the best part was, that they had an evening of Appalachian music, and Apple Cobbler…Thanks Mr. Ayers….

  4. Gloria

    October 18, 2011

    We loved staying at the Hampton Inn and Caryville. How
    interesting to learn something of the history of that area
    through pictures and newsclippings. Of course we
    enjoyed the accomodations and the great breakfast, but
    the highlight was meeting Hack Ayres and hearing his
    story. We can’t wait to go there again.

  5. Doug Imlach

    April 25, 2011

    My wife and I stopped at Hack’s Hampton last year and found a wonderful change from the corporate sameness of most hotels. Due to a bad ice storm that night, Hack was unable to make it to his home, so was ‘bunking’ in his own hotel for the night. Although it was late he talked easily with us, giving us an appreciation of what it was like to grow up in moonshine country and seeing your own Father shot in front of you. The following morning he greeted us at breakfast with more stories and sent us on our way with a couple of DVDs that gave us an up close and personal peek at old-time local people swapping recollections of things that happened decades ago. A great experience. We will definitely stay again if we stop in Tennessee.

  6. You will see him busting tables and waiting on his guests every
    Morning……….also giving out his favorite discs for the travelers.

    YOU WILL SEE HIM ANY MORNING TALKING WITH HIS STAY OVER GUESTS?….even giving out his favorite discs he thinks his guests will enjoy on their travels.

  8. Travelin' Gringo

    January 27, 2011

    @dropout: don’t know what moonshine tastes like – I imagine something like jet fuel!

  9. The Dropout

    January 27, 2011

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing, TG.
    What does Moonshine taste like anyway? It’s such a lovely name but I suspect it tastes pretty bad.
    The Dropout recently posted..It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like CNY

  10. Audrey

    January 26, 2011

    Neat story! Coming across people and stories like this is why I love traveling.
    Audrey recently posted..Traveling Unplugged

  11. Laurel

    January 25, 2011

    Sounds like a very interesting character. I’d love to check out Tennessee one day as well.
    Laurel recently posted..World’s Largest Pig Museum

  12. inka

    January 25, 2011

    What a guy. Imagine the trauma of a 7 yeae old wtaching his dad get shot dead. You have a knack for finding the most interesting people and bringing them to us.
    inka recently posted..Syros – a very different Greek island

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