The Other, Other Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion

Clay Kilgore, executive director, Washington County Historical Society
Clay Kilgore, executive director, Washington County Historical Society

According to Clay Kilgore, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Washington County Historical Society, a man wearing a home-spun plaid shirt and an eighteenth century ditty bag draped over his shoulder (he’s passionate and maybe a touch quirky; he once constructed a working gallows), the western regions of this state first settled by Quakers have a long history of standing up for their rights in no uncertain terms. It’s the first installment of a three-day lesson in history that we learn onsite.  Tonight’s lecture takes place in the central hallway of the David Bradford House, a bit of a Washington city mansion (“They call us ‘little Washington,’” says Washington County’s Vice President of Tourism, J.R. Shaw. “We’re not the first Washington or the other Washington.”), an edifice clad in rough-hewn stones and refurbished to its former glory replete with pianoforte and formal dining room. The erstwhile owner of this house was a fairly wealthy and prominent member of this community snugged down in the rugged foothills of the Alleghenies, a region sporting promontories that show like a rumpled emerald quilt, a region punctuated with historic structures. Besides being rich, Bradford was a freethinker who led a rebellion against a group of people who scant decades before had fomented their own uprising. For the Whiskey Rebellion, born in this very house, was a militant reaction against the American “founding fathers”, a protest against – let the lesson begin – unfair taxation. Lasting roughly three years and boasting no major battles (sadly or happily), the Whiskey Rebellion is one of those history footnotes they probably don’t teach in school. But they should. For the irony is not lost on me: a bunch of people (i.e. – yet another Washington, this time George) rebel against tyranny and unfair taxation. They win. Now they turn into the tyrants – imposing an unfair tax. I am Canadian. I love this sort of thing. I also really like this area. Pittsburgh itself surprised me. I frankly expected a sort of lunch bucket town (what else can you expect from a place that calls one of its pro teams “Steelers’?), but I was dead wrong. Great city with a lot of culture. A really attractive city, actually. But that’s another story. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that this region is also attractive. Lush hills, some gorgeous mountain vistas, picturesque farms that could be the subject of a Rockwell magazine cover.

Trolley Car, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum
Trolley Car, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

And the history. (Note to self: tell everyone about the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum here, where you can learn everything you wanted to know about this form of transportation, highlighted by a visit to “The Streetcar Named Desire”. Introduce them to the pioneer village and interpretive centre at Meadowcroft Rock Shelter and Historic Village.) So here’s what happened, in a nutshell: rye was a chief agricultural crop here shortly after the America Revolution. Rye was the main ingredient in distilling whiskey. The government needed money so they taxed the whiskey. Problem was they taxed the whiskey before it was even made. This didn’t make locals happy. That wasn’t the only cause but it was the main contributing one. You can get the whole story at the Bradford House built in 1788. Then, after your history lesson you might get to sample a pioneer delicacy in the recreated kitchen out back. Then you can discover more local history, walking down the street and crossing the “National Road” – first trans-state transportation route. In the interim you’ll here some strange stories (a nitroglycerine explosion, a hanging gone bad, a story about the first crematorium in the U.S.). Then you come to the LeMoyne House. This was the residence of the fellow who came up with the great idea of the crematorium. Here you would expect some ghosts. Staff display, in a small glass container, the ashes of Baron De Palm (the first “volunteer” for this procedure). They take you through this refurbished home and give you more history. But back to the Whiskey Rebellion: other historical sites help you unravel the various positions and characters. They include the Oliver Miller Homestead, the Woodville Plantation, Friendship Hill and the Mingo Cemetery where many of the leaders now rest. Given that whiskey is the chief character in this story, and given the disappointing lack of ghosts at LeMoyne House (the house does boast some great artifacts, among them an excellent military display and collection), the cemetery comes as a relief. Bad pun alert: all kinds of spirits there.

Laneway Bradford House, Washington, Pa.
Laneway Bradford House, Washington, Pa.

In the event you didn’t find that last rather witty writing sufficiently amusing or entertaining, you should consider signing up for the Whiskey Rebellion Festival come July. Re-enactments (rumour has it they tar and feather someone and head him out of town on a rail), fireworks and, one might safely assume, at least a sampling of whiskey. For otherwise, here in this picturesque hill-bound town that’s neither national capital nor a Pacific northwest state, you can imagine what might happen. Might just have another Whiskey Rebellion. NOTE: The region’s worth a Pit Stop (sorry) if you ever find yourself in Pittsburgh and the stress of city life gets to you. Check them out at www.visitwashingtoncountypa.com