John Oyler: The Whiskey Rebellion festivals of 2019
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, the brand-new United States government faced its first major domestic crisis.
A large group of farmers in Western Pennsylvania rose up in opposition to an onerous excise tax on the production of whiskey, threatening armed rebellion. We have been aware of this momentous event for many years, but continue to be eager to learn more about it.
Fortunately, there are a number of local organizations dedicated to enhancing our understanding of this significant bit of our heritage, primarily in the form of memorial festivals. Thanks to fortuitous scheduling, this year we were able to spend two weekends in July enjoying these festivals.
The first weekend was in “little” Washington, which has staked its claim on being the focal point of the rebellion on its favorite son, David Bradford. The festival is always rewarding; this year was no exception. It features a series of realistic reenactments of Whiskey Rebellion events by the “Historical Street Theater” on South Main Street in downtown Washington.
This year, we were particularly impressed by a confrontation between John Neville and John Holcroft which clearly defined the issues that led to the rebellion.
The Washington festival includes live music concurrently in three venues, with genres including archaic, Celtic, bluegrass and contemporary folk.
My final stop was at the Pioneer Room of the George Washington Hotel where I was delighted to find Andrew Knez Jr. with a table of his masterful artwork. Andrew is indeed a treasure as the contribution that he continues to make to our understanding of life two centuries ago is immense.
The following weekend, my focus shifted to Woodville Plantation. I have enjoyed their reenactments of the events at Bower Hill in the past. This year, they were supplemented by “Market Faire,” a recreation of an 18th century community market. This turned out to be even more impressive than I had anticipated.
No 18th century fair would be complete without a medicine show. This one featured Dr. Balthasar, impeccably portrayed by re-enactor Mike Follin. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton also was there. Impersonated by re-enactor Pete Fernbaugh, Hamilton convincingly presented the federal government’s rationale for the Excise Tax of 1791.
The entertainment included Jack and Maddie’s Turnip Wagon, a curio show featuring marionettes, hobby horses and period songs. In addition, fiddler Zac Gordon provided a selection of 18th century tunes, accompanied by a tap-dancing puppet.
A variety of wares were available from an impressive group of peddlers. Willy Frankford displayed the products of his remarkable scrimshaw work on powder horns and other historical artifacts. The Liberty Pole Spirits distillery offered seven different whiskeys. Others sold period clothing, antique reproductions and blankets.
Although I had seen the reenactment of the burning of Bower Hill before, it was a treat to see it again. Even though you know it is all make-believe, reenactments do an excellent job of providing contemporary viewers with a rough idea of what actually occurred.
It was a treat to see the recreation of an 18th century market. Our congratulations to Dan Ragaller and all the Neville House Associates folks for making it happen. I certainly hope this is the first event of an annual series.