Head south down U.S. 220 to Rocky Mount, and soon you’ll probably find yourself crossing the W.N. Angle Memorial Bridge near the center of town.
It rises high over the railroad tracks, above a stretch of factory buildings and warehouses that make up Ply Gem, a window-manufacturing outfit that’s one of the town’s biggest employers.
A stone’s throw down the same block you’ll find the oddly shaped art gallery The Grainery, a building that has not a single right angle.
These are pretty much all that remain of Franklin Grocery & Grain, a once-thriving former wholesale operation that for decades supplied foodstuffs and other items to stores all over Franklin County and beyond.
The business played another key role in Franklin County commerce. It bought sugar by the train and truckload, hundreds of tons annually in the late 1940s and 1950s and beyond.
Most of that wound up in stills deep in surrounding wooded hollows, in places like Snow Creek, Ferrum and Endicott. The result was the product the county remains most famous for: untaxed corn whiskey, which fueled Franklin’s self-appointed reputation as “Moonshine Capital of the World.”
Most of those stills are gone now, but moonshine is still a big business in Rocky Mount.
You can see that in the T-shirts and bumper stickers for sale around town, and in the photos of bootleggers that proudly hang on the barroom walls at Ippys, one of the Rocky Mount’s most popular restaurants.
You can find it on the bookshelves over at the Franklin County Historical Society. There, one best seller is Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World,” a novelized biography of the author’s infamous moonshining relations, the Bondurant brothers.
Other recent volumes include “Spirits of Just Men — Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World” by Charles D. Thompson Jr. and “Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine,” by Max Watman.
And you can see it each April, when hundreds of tourists descend on the small town for its annual Moonshine Express Tour, which started in 2005 and this year drew about 300 participants from seven states and one foreign country.
“It used to be, we made money making moonshine,” said Linda Stanley, special projects coordinator for the historical society. “Now we make money talking about it.”
That mini-tourism industry may be small potatoes compared to what’s coming, however. Because Franklin County and its most famous product are two chief characters in a major Hollywood movie that hits theaters next week. It will put Rocky Mount on the map like never before.
Based on “The Wettest County in the World,” the movie “Lawless” stars Gary Oldham, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain and was a selection for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It opens in thousands theaters across this country Wednesday.
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