The Cornbread Mafia: The Outlaw Pot Growers In the Bluegrass of Kentucky

Mervyn Kaufman reviews a book about the biggest Marijuana bust in American History.

They never called themselves the Cornbread Mafia. That label was attached to them either by the feds who cracked their operation or the newspaper that reported it.

On June 15, 1989, at a press conference in Louisville, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the arrest of 70 rural Kentuckians and the seizure of 182 tons of marijuana from 28 farms in 9 states as well as Kentucky. “All roads led to Marion County,” writes author James Higdon, calling it “a community in the corner pocket of the Bluegrass, the buckle of the Bourbon Belt….”

The feds crowed over cracking a domestic syndicate, but the Cornbread Mafia extended its tentacles all the way to Colombia and Belize, whose crop was smuggled into the U.S. In Belize, says Higdon, Mennonite farmers grew and harvested pot successfully by buying tractors and other heavy equipment in Kentucky and having everything shipped to them via New Orleans.

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James Higdon, a Brown graduate with an Honors degree from the Columbia Journalism School and an internship at Louisville’s respected Courier-Journal, grew up in Marion County, where his dad was part owner of a grocery store in the town of Raywick. He saw the journalistic potential of following the local pot-growing saga to its humiliating conclusion, never realizing that it would devour five and a half years of his life. The resulting book is juicy story-telling—provocative, detailed and brilliantly documented in 21 pages of chapter notes.

Why Marion County, Kentucky?  Higdon points to the “robust” whisky-distilling industry that had flourished there before and after the Civil War but was compromised—going aggressively underground—during the 13 “dry” years of Prohibition that began in 1917.

According to Higdon, establishing a booze ban via the Volstead Act “created a culture permissive of moonshining and bootlegging, which made Lebanon [another Marion County town] a hoppin’ stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit until the Vietnam War brought marijuana home, where the whole thing exploded like a science-fair volcano.”

Higdon carefully tracks Cornbread Mafia history, calling it “a story of a culture that nurtured the ambitions of young adventurous men willing to take incredible risks with hard work and a story of the economy that made such risky work necessary—free spirits exercising their free will in the free market.”

Pot farmers who deftly evaded arrest or long jail terms were not only shrewdly determined outlaws; they were also slick businessmen, agrarian scientists who developed breeding techniques to ensure that Kentucky strains of pot were quality products. And they were fiercely protective of their crops, which continually attracted pot thieves.

“The thieves were known in the business as rippers,” the author reports. To fend them off, growers set booby traps around their crops: fishhooks hung at eye level, trip wires that would set off dynamite, live rattlesnakes tied to poles where the crops grew, rottweilers with surgically removed vocal cords so they couldn’t bark before attacking.

When a much-feared grower of the profitable new crop caught two rippers in one of his pot patches, writes Higdon, “he beat both into submission before restraining them hand and foot with a logging chain. He chained one thief like a cowboy ropes a calf…and hung the other one upside-down….”  He finished the exercise by dousing both of his captives with gasoline “to teach them a lesson that no one would forget.” An earnest colleague dissuaded him from lighting a match, however.

When federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) personnel, state and local police, and undercover detectives began checking out local farms, marijuana was planted within fields of corn. To hide these illicit crops, which could soar up to 8 feet tall, farm workers patrolled the rows daily, “bending the stalks of the plants so that they would grow curved instead of straight,” thus not be spotted, the author reports.

Law enforcement initially had little to do with bringing down the elusive drug cartel. What created huge cracks in its swelling success was cocaine, which Higdon believes “turned once-reasonable men into ego-driven narcissists with little regard for the consequence of their fast-living behavior.” When cocaine came to Marion County in the early 1980s, he says, it drove “a wedge between those who dealt with it and those who used it as a magic powder that turned good people into assholes.”

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Initially, the DEA thought the Kentucky pot syndicate a complex organization with one head, like the Cosa Nostra with its capos, lieutenants and soldiers. Instead, the agency concluded, it was “a multi-faceted conspiracy…with more than one head.” One of these was Johnny Boone, a pot farmer who served two prison terms and skillfully escaped the clutches of the law during the years in between. Facing a third arrest that he knew would keep him behind bars for life, with no chance for parole, he went and remains on the lam.

Author Higdon got to Boone, gained his trust and interviewed him repeatedly, even snapping his picture, which earned him a court subpoena. “U.S. marshals and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have photos of Johnny Boone in a tropical location, and they know that I took them,” Higdon writes. “They want me to tell them where that location is, but doing so will reveal the identity of a confidential source, so I am prepared to not answer those questions, which will result in a contempt of court citation and up to 18 months in prison.

“But wait! Don’t journalists have a right to protect their sources? Nope, not in federal court they don’t.” However, Higdon was able to avert a court appearance on a technicality, which in a way made him kin to Johnny Boone and all of his cohorts in maintaining Cosa Nostra-style omerta—a rigid code of silence.

In 2008, Higdon and the soon-to-vanish outlaw listened together as candidate Barack Obama delivered a rousing campaign speech. “He’s the real fucking deal, isn’t he?” Boone asked, and Higdon concurred.

“Do you ever think, if he’s elected president, that he would legalize it so that a farmer could grow a little pot?”  The author didn’t know how to respond at first but finally replied, “I’d like to say yes, but probably not. Maybe in his second term.”

photo: talkmarioncounty247 

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About Mervyn Kaufman

A consumer-magazine writer, Mervyn Kaufman is the author most recently of The Shamrock Way, the history of Arizona's biggest and most enduring food-service company, and coauthor of the Gary Stevens memoir, The Perfect Ride.

Comments

  1. Keith Wallman says:

    Nice review. As the editor of the book, one of the things that attracted me to the story was its connections/parallels to Prohibition. It doesn’t matter what side of the marijuana legalization debate you’re on; there are incidents chronicled in the book and in the War on Marijuana in general where you can replace the words “smugglers” and “pot farmers” with “rumrunners” and “moonshiners,” and “Prohibition agents” with “drug enforcement agents” – and you’d be seeing history repeating itself 50-plus years after the Volstead Act. As one of the authors who provided a blurb for the book put it, THE CORNBREAD MAFIA is a “bookend to Ken Burns’s PROHIBITION.”

    • Just a girl says:

      Johnny Boone was never a folk hero. He made people nervous at best. Ditto for Bobby Joe Shewmaker. The Bickett boys were not respected – they were considered hoodlums. But dope was money and money talked. Jimmy Higdon knows that and he romanticized it in this book. I grew up in the shadow of these guys. The emotional devastation of the children involved is just heartbreaking. That Jimmy treated the topic so blithely was in insult to so many that he grew up with. I’m ashamed of him and I found the book misleading.

  2. I’m distantly related to some of these folks…..very very sad :(

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