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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

A county of bad ol' boys

Bootlegging, brothels, cockfights and chop shops. Guilty sheriffs and federal investigations. This slice of Tennessee has earned its image.

October 27, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Newport, Tenn. — HOW bad is Cocke County's lawless reputation?

So bad that its tourism and economic development chief, Donald Hurst, likes to kick off out-of-town business meetings with a self-deprecating joke. All of the visiting Cocke County officials, he tells his audience, are right here in the building -- so "rest assured, your home is safe."

To many Tennesseans, Cocke County is the place their parents warned them about, the butt of hillbilly jokes, the last redoubt of an old, untamed Appalachia. For decades this poor and dramatically beautiful area, north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was a haven for moonshiners and bootleggers who evaded federal tax agents by hiding in its rugged hills and hollows.

It was also known for its brothels and chop shops, its illegal bars and gambling, its shakedowns and drugs and stadium-sized cockfight pits -- and its rampant public corruption. There was a time when people called it "Little Chicago."

And though other mountain communities have seen their wild days lapse into the innocuous category of "colorful past," Cocke County seems doomed to repeat the sins that have long defined it.

In recent months, a state and federal corruption probe has been making familiar headlines here, flushing out the latest round of dirty cops, brothel owners and incorrigible outlaws whom locals call "tush hogs" -- a name they also use for wild boar.

County Mayor Iliff McMahan Jr., first elected in 2002 on a promise to attract tourists and new business, hopes this investigation is the final chapter of a long, troubled history.

After all, the Little Chicago nickname has long faded, and moonshining, a victim of increasingly lax Southern liquor laws, has been reduced to the status of a hobby.

And yet the trouble continues, competing with the good news McMahan and Hurst are spreading about their inexpensive, underdeveloped and untrammeled county -- the place their tourism campaign extols as the "real" Smoky Mountains.

"People think we're all barefooted and have three teeth and are playing banjo music," McMahan said. "We do have a tarnished reputation when it

comes to public service ...

[but] there are a lot of good, Christian people who live here. We are a law-abiding, God-

fearing community."

Jeramy Hux, the owner of a local mountaineering shop, said he hoped the probe would finally break what he called the "good-old-boy web" that had given the county such a bad name.

"It's about time," he said.

But there is also a notable lack of enthusiasm for the investigation, even among some law-abiding residents. Once again, they say, it seems like the federal government is picking on little Cocke County.

Robert Dameron, 64, a retired truck driver, said the FBI should find better things to do. "I don't think [the corruption] is as bad as they think," he said. "They've got that everywhere."

The mayor -- who counts a few illicit whiskey makers among his forebears -- said a wariness of federal power was deeply ingrained here. In the old days, McMahan said, moonshiners were rarely considered criminals -- just people trying to feed their families. When they were busted by federal "revenuers," those families often went hungry.

In the 1920s and '30s, state bureaucrats assembling land for the national park created more bad blood when they pressured hundreds of families to leave their mountain homes. During World War II, the Tennessee Valley Authority moved others off some of the county's best farmland to create Douglas Lake, part of the authority's vast hydropower system.

"We here in Cocke County have always felt the federal government has taken every effort to kick our butt that they possibly could," McMahan said.

ON a pretty day, the Cocke County countryside feels more like heaven than a notorious den of iniquity. Mountains roll to the horizon, clad in green swaths of hemlock and pine. Three rivers -- the Pigeon, the French Broad and the Nolichucky -- rush through lush, oak-strewn bottomlands. Small farmers grow tomatoes, grass for hay, and a little tobacco.

According to the 2000 census, 22.5% of Cocke County's 34,000 residents live in poverty. The county seat, Newport, is home to 7,000, with a quaint if dowdy downtown and a few suburban amenities: a Ruby Tuesday restaurant, a Lowe's home improvement store.

This is, supporters say, a typical rural county, no better or worse than any other. To some extent, statistics bear them out: In 2005, Cocke County logged about 77 crimes per 1,000 residents. The rate was higher than those reported by nearby Jefferson and Grainger counties, but lower than that of adjacent Sevier County, where tourists flock to miniature golf courses in Gatlinburg, and Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge.

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