Laurinburg’s early history was one of a railroad town. Laurinburgh High School (yes, that’s “Laurin” for the McLaurin family, and “burgh” for Edinburgh, Scotland) existed in a yet unofficially named community beside the railroad that ran from Wilmington to Rutherfordton. At the onset of the War Between the States, the rail yards in Wilmington were moved more than 100 miles inland to the community that would later be known as “Laurinburg.”
The rail yards remained in Laurinburg following the War Between the States, and as recalled by my grandfather, John McDougald (b. 1870) “We had 13 stores and 13 bars on Main Street.” Near the end of the 1800s the rail yards moved to nearby Hamlet and with them moved many of the patrons of the local bars. Their number of bars went into serious decline and they were gradually replaced by more mundane businesses. The prohibition era began in 1919 with the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, so not only was Laurinburg “dry,” but so was the entire country — at least in law, but not necessarily in deed.
Abolishing alcoholic consumption proved to be impossible in the US and in 1933 the 31st Amendment was passed once again legalizing the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. Still many states, counties, and cities continued to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Scotland County was once again “wet” after prohibition but for only a few years. Problems brought on by alcoholic consumption plagued not only families, but also diverted law enforcement to countless and unnecessary confrontations with drunks. Local churches also arose to battle the menace of alcohol, citing its toll upon families.
Taking matters under control, Scotland County once again outlawed the sale and public consumption of alcoholic beverages and continued operations as a legally dry county for many years. Beer, wine, or distilled spirits were forbidden to be sold within the county boundaries.
However, like the failed era of Prohibition in the United States, obtaining alcoholic drinks was never a problem for those locals who really wanted it. McColl, SC, where whiskey could legally be purchased was just 8 miles away. But more important were the local moonshiners and bootleggers that sometimes operated freely under the watchful eye of law enforcement.
Moonshiners and bootleggers were legendary in all of North Carolina. Stock car racing, now operating as NASCAR got its start in Wilkes County by men running illegal whiskey. Their mechanically modified cars could easily outrun anything law enforcement had. Soon names like Junior Johnson became legendary.
Scotland County was not without its moonshine legends. At one time the illegal activity was so open that the illicit business became competitive and ugly.
In the mid 20th century, Sam McCormick was arrested with what was then the largest illegal distillery in North Carolina. Sam did not deny what he was doing and served his time in prison, but it was well known that he had taken the heat and punishment for several more prominent businessmen in our community. Following his release from prison he became a very successful businessman and farmer. In his case it was reported that local law enforcement had been tipped off by another moonshiner who was competing with Sam, but it is truly unclear which story is real and which is legend.
Like any community with illegal liquor, Laurinburg and Scotland County still had its fair share of local “drunks.” As was the way of the times, they were often picked up from the streets or at a disturbance, brought to jail and locked up until they sobered. Upon release, the circle began once again.
Zach Smith* was a notable town drunk in Laurinburg in the 1940’s. He was never violent, but he just loved his drink. Late evenings he was often found by a policeman in downtown, passed out in a doorway or alley. His continued pattern frustrated the police until one policeman thought of a unique plan.
On Friday night Zach was once more found in a drunken stupor in downtown Laurinburg. The policeman called Hewitt McDougald of the nearby McDougald Funeral Home and asked if he could meet him at the funeral home in a few minutes.
“We have ol’ Zach, dead drunk, and we want to try something with him.” Hewitt agreed and the meeting was arranged at the open garage door at the funeral home.
The unconscious Zach was carried into the funeral home and laid down in the preparation room on the porcelain embalming table. His head was positioned on the rubber block used during the embalming process, his hands folded across his abdomen, and a sheet was draped across his prone body. A hallway light was left on, the embalming room door left open, and Zach was left alone for the night also with the adjacent garage door open.
Arriving at the office the next morning, Hewitt discovered that Zach had disappeared. Consequently, Zach was never known to drink after that night, but soon afterward became a model laborer, Sunday school teacher and choir member.
Waking up on an embalming table in a funeral home was obviously the cure that worked.
Beacham McDougald is president of McDougald Funeral Home and Crematorium in Laurinburg. He serves as vice chair of the Scotland County Highland Games, on the Scotland County Tourism Development Authority, and is the founder and liaison of the Scotland High School-Oban High School student exchange program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.