“Veronica! VERONICA!” shouted the coarse, angry voice. ”What are you still doing asleep? Don’t you know it’s time to get out on the porch? Now get out there and drum us up some business!”
Twelve-year-old Veronica Strong, or Sis as she was called by her younger siblings, got up quickly and rushed to the bathroom, splashed water on her face, put on her wispy dress, quickly brushed her bleached-blonde hair and ran outside.
She hated her hair. It was really jet black just like her mother’s, but her grandmother Agnes made her bleach it. Agnes said black hair didn’t lure men in to buy moonshine whiskey. To act as a “come on” Veronica’s hair had to be blonde.
It was 1926 and prohibition was in full swing in Bay St. Louis with secret stills operating for profit all around Mississippi — especially on the coast. Mississippians consumed large amounts of alcohol and they had plenty of suppliers.
This state had been dry since 1906 and the bootleggers liked it that way. It kept competition at bay. Each time a vote came up in Mississippi, the “dry” people would vote to stay “dry” and the “wet” people would vote to stay “dry” as well. It was good for business. Even many of the local law officers were looking the other way and taking bribes from bootleggers to stay quiet. Mississippi stayed dry until 1966.
When Tennessee voted to repeal prohibition in 1933 with blue laws still intact for the prohibition of selling liquor on Sunday, it was said that after that vote Mississippi and Tennessee were no different except that Mississippians could still buy liquor on Sunday!
Veronica’s father Willie Strong, and her grandparents Agnes and Oscar Luc, ran competing bootleg operations in Bay St. Louis, MS. There was also an operation on Cat Island off the coast of Long Beach, MS and one in Kiln, MS. In addition to these and other stills, ships carrying whiskey would anchor just outside U.S. waters off the coast and smaller boats would load up with liquor. They would make the twelve-mile haul to the coast to distribute it. These smaller boats were called “rum runners” and many of the fishermen in the area could run whiskey more profitably than hauling fish.
Earlier in 1926 Veronica’s mother, Cora Agnes Luc Strong, died suddenly at the age of 32. Cora had been a good mother to her children — even while living in a tumultuous marriage with Willie Strong. Before she died, she was taken away on a train to a hospital in New Orleans. Cora’s last words to her husband were to keep their eight kids together. But that didn’t happen.
Some of the children’s aunts took them in for a while, but Willie eventually put the girls in St. Mary’s orphanage up in Natchez, MS and the boys in another orphanage near Natchez — except Veronica and her older brother Harold. He was put to work on the boats and Veronica was sent to live with her grandparents, the bootleggers. Her other more upstanding grandparents had died years earlier.
The children had terrible memories of their life in the orphanage. For punishment they would have to kneel on wood chips, or the nuns would beat their palms with a long ruler until the children’s hands bled. If they wet their bed, the Sisters would make them hold their sheets out the window until they dried. In stark contrast to Cora’s wishes, the younger sisters were only able to see their brothers one Sunday each month.
Agnes Luc, Veronica’s grandmother, is remembered by her grandchildren as a hateful and selfish woman. She seemed to live up to her reputation with an act like sacrificing the innocence of her grandchild to sell her own whiskey. It seems that when the other children were not in the orphanage, Agnes used them for her benefit as well.
Recollections of one grandchild, Pearl, was that her grandparents stored their moonshine in a spot accessible through a trap door hidden by a rug on the floor. When they needed a bottle they would send her down to get one. One time she had to haul a jug of whiskey down a ditch that led to the beach for her grandfather to drink. Another time during the depression when the kids were nearly starving, Oscar gave Sis a bag of red beans and a bag of rice for her and her siblings, but Agnes saw her with them and poured them back into her larger sacks. ”I’m not feeding Willie Strong’s kids,” she said.
Another tale was told of Willie Strong. Because of an altercation with another bootlegging operation on Cat Island, Willie reported them to the “revenuers.” At one point in the events that followed, shots rang out and Willie was caught in the crossfire. It is said that he went to his grave in 1969 with buckshot still in his neck.
But by 1931, at age 17, Veronica was rescued from her miserable life. She met a gentle man, Rufus Hinson, from the piney woods of southeast Louisiana who had come to the Mississippi Coast to find work during the depression. They soon married and he took her back to his family’s home place near Holden, LA where they set up housekeeping in a cabin he built. The next year Veronica gave birth to their first child, Marion Ray Hinson.
They would eventually move back to the Mississippi Coast. Twelve years after their son was born, they had another child, Sandra Gail Hinson. Rufus and Veronica would live in coastal Mississippi for the rest of their 50 year marriage.
Whatever may have happened to Veronica as a child, she did not let it make her bitter later in life. She was a gentle woman, a wonderful cook, and a devoted Christian.
Veronica was my grandmother. Her son, Marion Ray Hinson, is my father.