Centenarian ‘Billy’ Center… a mild mannered distiller

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2015

William Perry “Billy” Center, born Jan. 8, 1875, near the Glassy Mountain Baptist Church, was the son of James Alexander “Jim” and Sarah Ballew Center. As a boy, he was a good student at the Glassy Mountain public school, where his father served as a trustee for many years, even though he was a well-known distiller.

Young Billy learned the intricacies of distilling from his father, and assisted him in a store that he opened in 1884 to sell rough shirts, overalls, household goods, and meal, malt, yeast and sugar that was used in distillery operations.

As a young man, Billy attended the Gowensville Seminary for five years, alternating between working to pay for his schooling and attending classes at the renowned school. He was encouraged by an uncle, who was on the staff of The Enterprise and Mountaineer newspaper in Greenville, to “work cheerfully…and do splendid work when you go to school.”

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He graduated from the Gowensville Seminary and taught for two years in the Glassy Mountain public school, then became a partner with his father in the family store. Local moonshiners, grateful for having a nearby source to obtain ingredients for distilling, traded often at the store, especially on Saturdays.

For four years, Billy ran a wholesale distilling operation, in which he hired others to actually do most of the work. He was never arrested, but had several good, producing stills “cut up” and destroyed. He would wait a while and build them again and be back in business.

Billy sold his moonshine for 80 cents to $1 a gallon. He could get three gallons of the finest, purest “white lightnin’” from a bushel of corn, which he bought for 50 cents.

The largest sale that Billy ever claimed to make was two “two-horse wagons and a buggy load, sold to the same fellow.” This was about 340 gallons, sold to a buyer who drove from Pickens County to pick it up. The moonshine was 102 or 103 proof, while government whiskey was 90 to 95 proof.

In 1910, he and his father moved to Duncan, S.C., and operated a store in Greer for a brief period. Then, for many years, they farmed mostly cotton on several hundred acres of land running from the South Tyger River to the Middle Tyger River.  Jim Center lived to be 97 years old and died in 1945.

Billy, with his wife, Ida Jane Bright Center, raised two daughters, Cornelia and Leona, and became an integral part of the Duncan and Greer communities. He served Duncan Baptist Church as deacon board chairman, church treasurer and trustee for many years.

He was a member of Greer First Baptist Church when he died on Sept. 13, 1980, at 105 years of age.

He attributed his longevity to three things: he had never called a man a liar to his face; had never had a quarrel or fight with any man; and had not even fussed with his wife.

He was known to have a quick wit, a good sense of humor, and was one of the best fiddlers in any community where he resided.