Moonshine Myths: So Who Was That 'Mountain Boy' From 'Thunder Road'?

On the 60th anniversary of the events behind "The Ballad of Thunder Road," we look at new clues to the identity of Robert Mitchum's mysterious moonshiner

Let me tell the story, I can tell it all

About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol.

His daddy made the whiskey, son he drove the load,

When his engine roared,

They called the highway Thunder Road. …

On the first of April, 1954,

The Federal man sent word he'd better make his run no more…

"The Ballad of Thunder Road" was written and recorded by Robert Mitchum in 1958 to go along with the movie he wrote and starred in. Backed by a twanging guitar, Mitchum sings of "the mountain boy" ignoring the federal man's warning and "roaring out of Harlan, revving up his mill, he shot the gap at Cumberland and screamed by Maynardville," then "blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike... right outside of Bearden, there they made the fatal strike."

With the song's specific points of our local geography, Knoxvillians above a certain age—who might have grown up singing the tune's infectious chorus in campfire sing-alongs and had the movie's dramatic crash into an electric switching station emblazoned on their psyches—generally tend to assume that the song was based on a real crash on the backside of Bearden Hill. Whether the song refers to something that really happened or not, the legacy of Thunder Road is a touchstone of our cultural landscape on the order of Vol football, TVA, and the Civil War. Local poet/singer/songwriter R.B. Morris even recorded a soulful version of the song in 1997 and for years thereafter ended his live shows with it.

So, this month we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the action behind that song and offer something new: the best lead yet on the identity of the actual "mountain boy" whom Mitchum used as the model for his movie and song, brought to us by a relentless historical researcher named Kate Clabough.

Theories and Suspects

In her search for the mountain boy, Clabough has, to quote Isaac Newton, stood on the shoulders of giants. It is an inconvenient truth that there is no record of a crash of a moonshiner on or around April 1, 1954. That would have been too easy. In these pages, 10 years ago, Jack Neely pointed out the delightful coincidence that April 4, 1954, saw the first official NASCAR event ever held in Tennessee, at the Broadway Speedway. The formal NASCAR circuit had sprouted from the rich tradition of dirt track drivers, many of whom had learned their driving chops running moonshine.

In that story, Neely also posed the tantalizing idea that Mitchum might have heard stories about East Tennessee moonshiners in 1955 from Knoxville native James Agee, who had been the screenwriter for The Night of the Hunter, in which Mitchum can still spark audience nightmares as the murderous circuit rider Harry Powell, with "L-O-V-E" and "H-A-T-E" tattooed on his knuckles. In fact, Mitchum's brother Jim confirmed to Neely that Agee and Mitchum were drinking buddies on that film.

In response to that article, Neely got several calls. "One man said he remembered vividly hearing about the original wreck from his sixth-grade teacher in Fountain City in 1953. ‘I believe I can assure you that it was real,' he said on the message. I tried to call him back on the number he left, but wasn't able to reach him."

Buddy Wagner said it happened in 1952—April, he thinks—when Wagner was a Fulton High student of 17. He offered many details of hearing about a bad wreck and walking to actually see it, at an electric substation near Papermill Road.

A fellow named Don Palmer said there was no crash, but that the story was based on his father, Dan, who once told bootlegging stories to Mitchum on a fishing trip that also included Kirby Grant, star of the TV show Sky King.

Although none of these detailed, interesting accounts could be verified, it's possible that many of these stories helped Mitchum develop the idea for his movie. In his 2001 Mitchum biography, Baby, I Don't Care, Lee Server notes that "Mitchum had been fiddling with the idea for years" of a movie about moonshiners outrunning treasury agents.

In 1957, Server writes, Mitchum joined up with Texas newspaperman/mystery novelist James Atlee Phillips. "Mitchum had worked up a story line concerning an ex-soldier returning to his Smoky Mountain home, running illegal alcohol across the state, trying to outwit and outrace the authorities; and another writer, Walter Wise, had done a draft, but it needed a lot of work. Mitchum wanted more details, an inside feel for the milieu."

Mitchum and Atlee traveled to Washington, D.C., where Atlee's brother David, "a rising star at the CIA," helped gain them access to the files of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. There they spent days gathering details about the government's many-fronted war on Appalachian moonshining. Some of the lyrics of the song, even the date, have the ring of an official report.

After stopping in Asheville to talk moonshine with treasury agent John Corbin and Al Dowtin, head of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, Mitchum returned to Hollywood to put together a cast and crew. Perhaps the saddest fact about Thunder Road was that Mitchum offered the role of the younger brother to Elvis Presley, who had just had his respectable movie debut in Love Me Tender. Since Col. Tom Parker's asking price was half the budget of the picture, the role went to Mitchum's son Jim, and Elvis lost one of his last chances for an interesting dramatic role.

When filming began in autumn of 1957, writes Server, "[t]he working atmosphere was extremely relaxed, the script vestigial." Server quotes actor Gene Barry, playing Treasury agent Troy Barrett, saying, "I found they were making it up as they went along. … Jim Phillips was constantly writing new scenes, taking advantage of local color they found, and some of the people were very colorful."

In two editions of his book Return to Thunder Road: The Story Behind the Legend, Lenoir City writer/physicist Alex Gabbard explored every part of the moonshining culture, parsed every name in the movie for clues, traced the route described in the song—from Harlan, Ky., on Highway 33 through Maynardville, Knoxville, and "out on Kingston Pike, right outside of Bearden, where they made the fatal strike."

Gabbard interviewed a West Knoxville man, John Fitzgerald, who swore convincingly that he saw the crash right there where Mattress Direct and Walker's Formal are today. Fitzgerald described the smell, the way the driver was lying on the ground, and the misty green '52 Ford he had crashed. Gabbard never found any account of such an incident.

Though Gabbard never found the real mountain boy, the quest for this particular Holy Grail remained his passion. Over the years, like Neely, he's gotten many calls from people claiming it was their father, or grandfather, or uncle. "This is the nature of legends," explains Gabbard. "These are the stories people have heard growing up, and they are a part of their lives."

And this is the power of a legend that fits and illuminates our collective past. Like King Arthur or Robin Hood for the English, the story is more powerful for what we don't know, precisely because it informs so much of our regional history and our culture. Robert Mitchum tapped something powerful, real, and enduring when he wrote a story about a father who made moonshine and a fast-driving son who delivered it to their customers—and who died one tragic day.

Enter the Gangsterologist

Kate Clabough grew up in Holdrege, Neb., but she had been born in Denver, Colo., while her parents were visiting doctor friends. Her mother, Bev Klamm, was a seamstress, and her dad, Dick, was an electrical and electronics technician with Platte Pipeline, later bought by Marathon Oil. After Kate was born, a childless couple walked into the Rocky Mountain Osteopathic Hospital and offered Beverly $10,000 and a Cadillac for her.

"She obviously didn't sell me," says Kate. "But when I got in trouble, she would occasionally remind me, ‘You know, I had an opportunity to sell you.'"

Kate grew up hearing her family stories. Like Uncle Oscar, who everyone said robbed the same bank in Jefferson City, Mo., three times, then got hit on the head and had amnesia for 10 years then showed up back home when his memory came back. Or her Grandma Alice and her sister Eva, who knew their way around the Prohibition speakeasies of downtown Kansas City. "Eva was a true flapper," says Clabough. "She had a Model T she'd ride around in, and they knew all the gangsters of the day."

The stories had always made Clabough want to find the truth. "I'm pretty good about not taking people's words for things," she says. "I went back and found Uncle Oscar's prison records, and I saw that he really did rob the same bank three times. I can't find any records about his amnesia." In later life she joined the Oklahombres and a gangsterologist group that helped her track down the names of bad guys she'd heard from Alice and Eva. "If there's information out there to be found, I'll find it," she says.

After graduating from Kearney (Neb.) State, her curiosity about records and local history got her a job at the Hoesch Memorial Library in Alma, Neb., which doubled as the morgue for the local paper and where she was trained as a researcher.

In 1997, Kate moved from Nebraska to Louisville, Tenn., to marry David Clabough, a dairy farm manager turned graphic designer. David told her about many aspects of Appalachian life and culture, including our storied history of moonshining, fast cars, and Mitchum's cult classic movie and song. "David, his dad, they didn't exactly tout it as a true story, but as a story that could be true."

"I wasn't fascinated just with Thunder Road, I was fascinated with the whole moonshine culture and East Tennessee mountain culture in general," she says. "It was a totally foreign concept to me. Being from the Midwest, moonshining was all Chicago and Al Capone. I had never really heard stories about mountain-men moonshiners. I love studying people and places and eras and culture. I love the why and the where and the what for. I'm also a natural born skeptic. I don't believe a lot of things. I noticed right off that the movie and the ballad didn't match." (The movie was filmed in and around Asheville, with the crash supposedly occurring somewhere in West Tennessee, not Knoxville.)

Along with area historians like Gabbard, Clabough first looked in Harlan to find the roots of Mitchum's story. She wrote letters to people all over that area. "Not one lead," she says, "not a glimmer of recognition. It didn't take me very long to figure out it was Hollywood legend."

In around 2001, Clabough also talked at length with John Fitzgerald and found details in his descriptions—like treasury agents buying a Grapette soda—compelling. Says Clabough, "In the clippings, I never found a moonshiner's wreck from those years, but I did find a story about federal agents testing a new fangled technology—radar. John may have seen them testing radar that day, and everything he described may have been exactly as he saw it." When Fitzgerald died, in April 2005, his wife, Lylan, gave him a Thunder Road-themed funeral.

Clabough, meanwhile, vowed that she would someday find the mountain boy, even as she was writing dozens of stories and keeping up with her blended family of five children. She checked newspaper microfilm, police reports, and funeral-home records and found nothing. She interviewed Knoxvillians with memories of similar crashes of moonshiners or stories they'd heard about some of our area's great dirt-track drivers, or their grandfathers, or friends of their grandfathers.

One elderly woman called and told about a crash off North Central, where the car turned over and the upturned bottles in the trunk poured whiskey all over the street.

Another caller said the movie was based on moonshine-runner Gus Mathis. Clabough called Mathis' widow, Grace, at her Cocke County home. Grace said, yes, indeed, Gus ran his car over Swann's Bridge headlong into a police car, ended up in a full body cast, and got 13 years in prison in Atlanta. But he was not the subject of the movie.

From the very beginning, Grant McGarity, longtime head of the Knoxville office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, told Clabough he had always heard the real subject of Mitchum's movie was from Cocke County. This was logical, since Newport had for many years been the nation's capital of moonshining.

Following this lead, Clabough sent a letter to the editor of The Newport Plain Talk. It was a short note, saying she was looking for the identity of the person in the movie Thunder Road.

Within days, Clabough received an unsigned letter, written in a neat script, probably that of an elderly female, on two sides of lined notebook paper.

It was postmarked Knoxville. It said that the facts, "as told by my mother," were that "the person in Thunder Road was from Mountain Rest in Upper Cosby, now in the National Park. Pinkney Gunter was a maker of moonshine. His son, Rufus, was the ‘runner' and delivery man. … According to my mother, his parents were approached about making the movie, but his father refused. Eventually, his mother did sign the release."

Days later, Clabough received a second letter, also postmarked Knoxville but in a different hand and signed. (The 84-year-old writer wished her name withheld.) "It included a list of names and addresses I could call to verify," says Clabough. The writer said Gunter went off a bridge into the lake, and she went "to watch when they were dragging the body."

Then Clabough got a call from Cocke County Judge Ben Hooper. "Thunder Road was based on a man named Rufus Gunter," Hooper told Clabough. "He didn't die like Mitchum's character, but he certainly lived like him. I remember my Uncle George Poe taking me to see him race in Knoxville. He talked him into giving me a ride. He drove a '37 or '38 Ford. I remember the car had no passenger seat so I sat down low on the floor. The car bounced all over. I was scared to death. I wouldn't say it was a good experience."

Hooper said that in December 1955 Gunter was being chased on Asheville Highway, just outside of Knoxville, when he ran off the J. Will Taylor Bridge crossing the Holston River, and drowned.

Ronnie Moore, son of racing legend Ralph Burdette "Duck" Moore, told Clabough that his father knew Rufus Gunter well. They raced against each other in the '40s and early '50s, until Gunter's death took him off the circuit.

The colorful Eddie Harvey, late proprietor of Eddie's Auto Parts on Broadway in North Knoxville, had souped up engines for Rufus Gunter. In a 2007 Fred Brown story in the News Sentinel headlined "The End of Thunder Road," Harvey, himself a former moonshiner and race-car driver, described the events surrounding Gunter's death. "He outran the law all the way to the French Broad River and then stopped for some reason," wrote Brown. "Harvey says he must have thought that he would swim across to the other side. But Gunter may not have calculated accurately." [Ed. Note: Metro Pulse ran a profile of Eddie Harvey in 2000 by Betty Bean with a similar account.]

Said Harvey, "It was ice cold and Rufe was red hot from driving that car. He jumped for it. When he hit the water, he took a cramp and went under. It took me a week to find him."

If Gunter stopped his car and jumped, that would account for there being no accident report or news story.

In the News Sentinel interview, Harvey didn't explicitly say that Gunter had been the model for Thunder Road. So Clabough called the Harveys. She spoke first with Eddie's wife, Barbara, who confirmed that Eddie "absolutely knew that Rufus was the model for Thunder Road." Then, sitting at their kitchen table, Clabough heard more. "Ed said they didn't find the body for three days," says Clabough. "He said they found him about 75 feet from where he went in. He borrowed a boat and rowed out to get the body. He said Rufus was hooked up on a tree."

Gunter's death certificate lists the time of injury as Dec. 23, 1955, but says he was found dead on Feb. 12, 1956. So he may have been in the water for longer than Eddie Harvey remembered.

In the context of Cocke County moonshining, it's not surprising that it took more than 50 years for outsiders to get three sources for the name and tale of Rufus Gunter. Though it's "colorful regional flavor" to historical researchers, it was dangerous organized crime to those who lived it. Some might say that even today there are secrets in Cocke County that prudent souls might not want to ask too many questions about.

Real Life in the Smokies

For Clabough, the search for Thunder Road led her back in time. Following a lead, Clabough visited the home of an elderly Jean Costner Schilling near Newport. During the Depression, Schilling's father, Ike Costner, had been the biggest moonshine distributor in East Tennessee.

He did time in Leavenworth and, with Al Capone, was on the first trainload of convicts sent to newly opened Alcatraz in 1933. Ironically, Costner had learned to make whiskey at a government-run distillery in Cocke County before Prohibition.

Schilling gave Clabough a boxful of materials, including newspaper clippings describing her father as the "Newport Bad Boy" and several volumes of poems by Schilling's aunt, Ike's sister, Ella Costner, the Poet Laureate of the Smokies.

The volumes included Ella's memoir, Song of Life in the Smokies, a frank and chilling portrait of desperate poverty, Godliness and violence, good souls and bad, in early 20th-century Cocke County. Ella's father was a preacher and a good man. She became a Navy nurse, saw the world, came back home, and wrote about it all.

Ella Costner knew the Gunters. Her book includes the names and genealogy of the families in the Cosby area, including "Pink" Gunter, his wife Susie—called "Ollie," maiden name Ramsey—and their son Rufus. "Rufus was killed when his car went in the river," wrote Costner. "It was thought the law chased him."

Born about 1920, Rufus was 33 when he died on Dec. 23, 1955. Not exactly a boy, but still the beloved son of Pink and Ollie Gunter. "This is about a movie and a legend," says Clabough. "But it's also a story about the death of somebody's loved one."

Ella Costner describes an awkward encounter with Pink, in which he shook her hand, then scratched her palm with his fingernails as he drew it away. This was a standard invitation to sex, delivered right in front of Ella's parents, more or less as a remembrance of old times.

Clabough is using her boxful of research to write a full biography of Ike.

"Ike's biography got put on hold for a few years as I did a couple of local history books for Arcadia Publishing—the History of Lenoir City and the History of Farragut and Concord—and a novel, Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Murder, and helped care for aging in-laws," says Clabough.

"Then there was that little event in our lives when our triplet grandbabies were born. We'll just label that joyous chaos. They're 3 now and it's time for me to get back to writing full-time again.

"These topics always seem to come back to me. It's like a thing I throw out the door and it comes back. A gangsterologist friend wrote and said, ‘My grandmother had a bed and breakfast in Baltimore, and Ike Costner used to stay there all the time.' It comes back and it comes back. And Ike is at the top of the list. His story is uniquely East Tennessee and I think people around here will find it interesting. A bit of trivia: Every time the local band Pistol Creek Catch of the Day plays ‘The Ballad of Thunder Road' and I'm in the audience, they dedicate it to me. "

Nashville native Brooks Clark started singing along to "The Ballad of Thunder Road" in a station wagon with his five older siblings at the age of 3. They still sing it at family gatherings today.