This story originally appeared in our November 2012 issue.
Just before 10 a.m. on September 7, 2009, residents of Mill Creek heard gunshots. Some heard one shot; others as many as three. At the time it did not seem important. The sound was not uncommon along Mill Creek Road, an unmarked ribbon of blacktop winding through the hills four miles southeast of Dahlonega. Even when deer and turkey were out of season, hunters fired in their backyards and farmers scared foxes and coyotes from their fields. For thirty-one years, seventy-two-year-old retired plumber and former licensed gun dealer Lewis Dempsey had taken to his hundred acres, where he and his customers rehearsed a symphony of percussion: the crack of a 12-gauge shotgun, the rat-a-tat of an AK-47.
The report coming through the cornrows and timber on that clear Labor Day morning was the pop of Dempsey’s Glock 9 mm. But it came from the south, from the neighboring Crane land. The Cranes were Mill Creek’s longest-tenured residents. For almost a century they owned most of its land. Although they had sold the bulk of that land to newcomers like the Dempseys, the Cranes still held sway in those hills. Their patriarch was seventy-six-year-old Jewell Crane, storyteller, moonshiner, unofficial mayor of Mill Creek.
That morning Crane drove his blue pickup toward his garden to tend his collard greens. But after the shot, or shots, he lay on his back on the ground by his truck, camouflage hat knocked from his balding head, blue denim overalls darkening with blood. And Dempsey drove north on Mill Creek Road in his Ford Escape, across the boundary that separated Crane’s property from his own.
There are no straight lines in nature. Rivers, mountain ranges, and timberlines wind and bend and gradually shift across the landscape with time. They make imperfect borders. The Cherokee who first inhabited these hills believed a man could no more set aside land for himself than he could bottle the wind. They were barred from the 1832 Gold Lottery that raffled off pieces of Cherokee territory to white residents of what became Lumpkin County, driving the tribe westward on the Trail of Tears.
On paper these parcels were perfect squares of forty acres—a quarter the size of standard Georgia farm lots. At the height of Georgia’s Gold Rush, these gold lots were in high demand. But by the 1840s, the gold was mined out and the prospectors had gone to California. Over the next 150 years, the property grid was divided among new generations and sold to outsiders, piece by irregular piece. During these transfers, surveyors would enter dubious landmarks such as “rock piles” and “big trees” into the deed descriptions. “I once came across a property line described as ‘Two smokes on a mule’s back from the chestnut stump,’” says Richard Webb, who in thirty-six years as a surveyor in North Georgia has dug through volumes of yellowed maps and deeds. “Well, how big was the mule? And what were you smoking?”
Worse than the colorful specificity in some deeds was the vagueness of others. Into the 1950s, owners would sell a land lot of forty acres, “more or less,” even if the actual lines had long been blurred, moved, or skewed, or if parts of the original square lot had been broken off and weren’t technically theirs to unload. The land was worth only a few hundred dollars an acre, and there was plenty of it. Meanwhile fences went up, gradually becoming accepted boundaries—whether they ran along actual property lines or not.
That isn’t to say no one in North Georgia cares about land ownership. Property disputes are part of the culture. The owners talk things over, walk the land, review each other’s deeds, and, if necessary, hire surveyors. And if the matter still isn’t settled after that, the case goes before a judge or a civil jury that reviews the surveys, historical documents, and testimony. Possession is a factor. Then the court usually issues a binding decision. But not always. Sometimes the line still can’t be legally ascertained, and the parties are left to figure things out for themselves.
The community of Mill Creek has no discernible borders. It does not appear on any map. It is mostly hills and trees and barns and chicken houses and trailers
and homes that line an eponymous country road leading past a meandering, mill-less creek. And since arriving from South Carolina in 1857, the Cranes have possessed a good portion of the land. They donated the soil where Mill Creek Baptist Church was built in 1871, where generations of kin and neighbors are buried. At the intersection of Mill Creek Road and Highway 9, there is a large white plywood sign with chipped black letters: C.L. Crane Grocery. The squat cement-block convenience store to which the sign refers is the neighborhood gathering place. Residents can stock up on flour or toilet paper, grab a cup of night crawlers or a bag of ice, and get the latest news hot off the rocking chair of owner David Crane. He says first cousin Jewell Crane used to check in almost every day, lumbering up and down the aisles with his arthritic bones, buying candy bars and Cokes on credit as many local farmers do. He had only recently learned to sign his name to the tab, replacing his traditional X. Newcomers dubbed him “the Mayor” because he talked in his slow, deep timbre to anyone about anything, especially the history (sometimes on the shy side of truth) of the place where he had lived almost all his life.
When Jewell Crane was thirteen, his father, Dillard, was badly burned when a car he was working on misfired and set a gasoline can ablaze. Dillard barely survived. As the only son, Crane had to leave school to run the farm with the help of his uncles. The child learned to keep cattle and chickens, cut and haul hay and silage, and grow corn from the same soil his great-grandfather had tilled. When farming didn’t quite support the family, Crane was willing to do just about anything to make up the difference. His uncle offered the boy $2 a week to help him at his still, and that’s where the young Crane learned the family trade of moonshining. As Crane got older, he took on other jobs to supplement farming, like driving a cement mixer and a sawdust truck to work sites across the state. But throughout his life he took to the woods, where he built stills and cooked liquor.
Crane whiskey was not corn mash, like most white ’shine—his family grew corn solely for livestock feed. Instead he used other grains, like wheat and rye, to distill a clear and powerful spirit. He was also known to use apples and peaches for brandy. And while he would gladly siphon off a jar or two for a friend, Crane preferred selling large quantities to vendors throughout the region. This volume earned Crane a wide reputation and a handful of arrests for violation of liquor and tax laws. On one occasion he allegedly assaulted a federal officer. Twice he served time in federal prison—five months back in the 1950s and three months in the mid-1970s for bootlegging. But Crane was proud of his moonshining roots, and his contempt for the laws against it did not abate with age. His most recent run-in was in July 2000 with the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office. The charges of manufacture and possession of non-tax-paid distilled spirits were dismissed on insufficient evidence. Crane was sixty-seven years old.
But as the Crane family got smaller and others bought, farmed, and built in Mill Creek, Jewell Crane was among the first to welcome them. Whether driving between pastures or perched in the black metal lawn chair beneath the spreading magnolia tree in his front yard, he always had a smile and a wave and time to stop for a story. He took local kids out for tractor rides and delivered handpicked produce to their parents. And in 1978, when Lewis Dempsey cleared a spot atop his newly bought Mill Creek hill to build a brick house for his family, Crane was there to welcome him with a basket of corn.
Lewis Dempsey had spent his life distancing himself from people. He was a sickly baby, kept at the hospital for six months as an infant and, his parents later discovered, born deaf in his left ear. At the time, it didn’t much matter. He grew up in the quiet of rural Bolton, a few miles west of Downtown Atlanta. Dempsey’s father grew corn on 100 acres up and down Peachtree Creek near its junction with the Chattahoochee, not far from the railroad. There Dempsey worked the fields before and after school.
But soon the city came crashing in. Dempsey’s father, Lewis John, eventually sold his land, which was carved into subdivisions. Dempsey started his own family; he and his wife, Opal, raised four kids in a house in a quiet Norcross subdivision, where he ran his own plumbing business. He and Opal kept a large subsistence garden and canned vegetables and preserves that packed the cellar shelves. When his father’s second wife passed away, the widower moved into Dempsey’s Norcross house. But by the 1970s, as Dempsey’s children became teenagers, the city sprawl caught up with him again. The cornfields were now crowded with cul-de-sacs, the two-lane roads now six lanes, and the lone gas station surrounded by shopping centers. Dempsey and his father fled to the hills of Lumpkin County.
There Dempsey purchased nearly 100 acres straddling Mill Creek Road—then nothing more than a gravel lane—from a man who had bought it from a cousin of Jewell Crane. The deed included Land Lot 784. About half a mile north of Mill Creek Baptist Church, the lot’s forty-something acres comprised the west half of a rocky, wooded hilltop through which Mill Creek ran south from Dempsey’s land into a valley partially owned by the Cranes.
At first Dempsey and Crane were pleasant and social. So were their wives and children. When the Dempseys roasted a hog in the summer and Opal made Brunswick stew, all the Cranes were welcomed to partake. When there was a wedding, the other family was invited. When someone fell ill, members of the other family came to visit. Dempsey installed the pipe in Crane’s daughter’s house, and Crane’s daughter drove the younger Dempsey children to high school in Dahlonega. The families traded squash and corn.
The main bridge between the families was the fast friendship of Jewell Crane’s father and Lewis Dempsey’s father. The old men agreed that neighbors should talk and cooperate. Thus, when it came time in the early 1980s to fence off the southern part of Lot 784 to contain Dempsey’s cattle, all four men walked over the area as the posts were planted and the hog wire run.
The first real friction between the two families had nothing to do with land. One day Dempsey spotted his father drinking a jar of whiskey. And since it was white mash in Lumpkin County, Dempsey didn’t have to ask where it had come from. Never much of a drinker himself, and worried that the alcohol would react with medication his father was taking for lung cancer, Dempsey threatened to turn Crane in if it ever happened again. Dempsey recalls that about two weeks later, he heard that Crane had gotten hassled by police for moonshining. Dempsey sought out his neighbor to assure Crane that he had not reported him (a denial Dempsey maintains to this day). But for weeks thereafter, when Dempsey met Crane on the road or drove past his house, the bootlegger refused to wave.