Local native Stephen Alfred Blevins has officially announced the upcoming launch of Johnson City’s first distillery and museum, which is slated for location in the downtown area. Blevins, a genealogy enthusiast made some fascinating discoveries in his family history dating clear back to the prohibition. He always knew his family had an undeniably distinct story, but as he dug deeper, he couldn’t believe his findings. With numerous newspaper clippings to support it, Blevins found that his family members were not only the most notorious moonshiners/bootleggers during the prohibition in Johnson City – but that they were also linked to Cincinnati gangster George Remus, with connections to Al Capone in Chicago. According to local historians, Stephen has officially turned what was once considered a myth into confirmation.
Stephen’s family tree with Johnson City roots and the “Little Chicago” days runs undeniably deep. Prior to their earliest documented arrests, Sam and Carrie Wheelock (his great-grandparents) bought their first store in Johnson City in 1918. Their 3 sons Alf (Stephen’s grandfather), Don and Bruce also helped run the store. Over the span of their lifetimes, the entire Wheelock family (even Carrie) had numerous run-ins with the law. After a broad variety of offenses, the crime family, eventually opened the Sunshine Restaurant (Speakeasy) in 1928, just prior to Don going to federal prison in Atlanta right ahead of Capone and Remus.
In 1930, Sam Wheelock received a shipment from Cincinnati in Johnson City at Clinchfield (Train Depot), which is a vacant building across the street from the current “Yeehaw.” Wheelock was busted by federal prohibition agents with over 3,762 bottles of liquor in his possession. The newspapers reported this incident to be the biggest liquor bust in Johnson City. In the meantime, the family crimes and incarcerations continued. By 1932 Sam and Don were in prison with Al Capone. Don worked with Al Capone in the overall shop, sewing. In 1934, after Don was released from the Atlanta prison and headed to Johnson City to face escape charges, he was convicted and sent to Brushy Mountain Prison in Tennessee for 10 years. At the time, he was interviewed by the Knoxville Sentinel and mentioned knowing Al Capone from prison. He said he didn’t have to work hard, and that Al Capone was a good fella that gave the prisoners money. Even as the Wheelocks would get out prison, history would repeat itself. Sam later did some significant time at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville for a notable crime, while Carrie continued to run a new store/beer bar in Keystone of Johnson City.
In 1938, Stephen’s grandfather Alf began to pitch on the winning baseball team, The Brushy Mountain Bears. He was promoted in the newspapers as their “Secret Weapon,” as they always won with him on their team. He was known as their star player from 1938 to 1940, even though there was a Brushy Mountain State prison stay in the midst of his career. Alf dominated the newspaper headlines during his minor league baseball career.
Ultimately, family criminal records span to 1944, where Sam Wheelock was given a pardon by the Governor of Tennessee that reduced his prison sentence. For some other family history? Wheelock Whiskey originated with their ancestry from Scotland, Ireland and England in the 1700’s. Carrie Ledford Wheelock’s 4th grandfather was Colonel Charles Robertson (close relation to James Robertson linked to Nashville, TN), of the Watauga Settlers. The Robertson family was well-known for their Scots-Irish whiskey and the tradition was handed down for generations. The Wheelocks originated from England, and a whiskey distillery associated with Jay Wheelock still exists in Scotland to this day. Blevins vows to carry on the tradition of making corn whiskey, which is the ancestral heritage in the mountains of east Tennessee.
Coming packed with a deep-rooted true story that cannot ever be replicated, Blevins felt led to obtain his distilled spirit’s permit. Operating under the name of Wheelock Whiskey, he is officially the first distiller in Johnson City to earn a permit within the city limits. In a historical twist of irony, as the great-grandson of Sam Wheelock and a direct descendant of the first illegal moonshiners in Johnson City, Blevins is now the first legal distiller within the city.
“I have great-greatfather’s shine recipe and will be opening the first historic shine distillery in Johnson City, TN. It’s all about heritage and carrying on tradition. It’s not about the money…it’s for family tradition,” shares Blevins.
As Blevins goes forward with his vision, he is open to possibilities, but he undoubtedly knows his “why” behind his “what.”