In 1824, in the cradle of the rugged Appalachian Mountains, where reality and myth dance in the moonlit shadows near the border of Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, a legend as timeless as those hills was born to an impoverished Melungeon family. Her name was Mahalia Collins Mullins.
Her life was like a tapestry woven from mystery and embellished tales. Still, threads of judgment and discrimination fashioned a precarious life for Mahalia in a society steeped in the media's sensationalized portrayals of Melungeons, a label given to descendants of mixed ethnic ancestors who settled in various Central Appalachia regions dating to the late 1700s. Yet, even in an era where people of color and rural Appalachians bore the weight of stereotypes, Mahalia shined atop her Appalachia peak as a beacon of resilience amidst this bleak adversity.
Surrounded by whispering wind and rustling leaves in her mountain home, Mahalia built a moonshining empire that raised an impressed brow of white male distillers and made it quite impossible for authorities to arrest her and bring her to court. Her moonshine, an elixir flavored with the essence of local orchards, was a unique and boutique creation in a region dominated by rough-and-tumble these male moonshiners. The allure of her product reached far and wide, drawing buyers from miles around and filling her coffers with the sweet nectar of financial success. From her earnings, after the Confederates burned her first smaller cabin because she supported the Union army, she erected a two-story house with a wide porch and two separate rooms on the first floor that remains a testament to her ingenuity.
Known as Appalachia's Moonshine Queen, Mahalia was more than a moonshiner. She was a trailblazer. Druanna Williams Overbay, a descendant passionate about history, took up the mantle to dispel the myths surrounding her illustrious ancestor.
Rumors were that Mahalia identified with the Cherokee and this connection may explain her family's steadfast refusal to pay taxes on their moonshine. In her own fiery words, "They ain't getting a damn dime of my money. They owe me, and I'm not paying them," a woman of conviction, Mahalia stood defiant in the face of an oppressive system.
As years rolled on, her health waned, succumbing to the cruel grip of elephantiasis, a skin disease characterized by grossly enlarged areas of the body, especially the limbs. In this disease, the skin becomes thick and stiff due to parasitic worms spread through mosquito bites. Even so, in the face of personal tragedies, including the loss of her husband and three children, Mahalia pressed on with her moonshining craft until her final breath in 1898. Reports varied on the circumstances of her burial, adding another mystique to her enigmatic life and death. She was buried outside her bedroom on Newman's Ridge, some say in a coffin built around her bed because she had become so large from her disease.
Mahalia's legacy unfolded in multifaceted layers. While some publications painted her with an encumbered luster, her family's safeguarded photographs captured her strength and dignity. Wayne Winkler, an author with Melungeon heritage, championed a more nuanced understanding of Mahalia, urging the world to place her within the time's socio-cultural landscape.
Descendants of the Appalachian Moonshine Queen, scattered far and wide, became the keepers of her flame. The Vardy Community Historical Society also worked tirelessly to preserve her memory, ensuring that she was not just a folk tale but an integral part of their family history. Her cabin, which they transported from its original perch on Newman's Ridge, is a historical shrine and a tangible link to her life's unconventional yet domestic facets.
A living challenge to stereotypes and misconceptions, Mahalia Collins Mullins carved a niche in the annals of East Tennessee folklore, leaving an indelible mark on the generations to follow. Her indomitable Appalachian spirit will forever be a timeless saga etched into the heart of the mountains.