Whiskey Rebellion Festival building on success

July 5, 2017
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Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter
Washington County Historical Society Executive Director Clay Kilgore leads his group of rebel farmers with re-enactor Rob Windhorst as a prisoner during the 2014 Whiskey Rebellion Festival. Order a Print
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Observer-Reporter
Re-enactor Dan Ragaller of Upper St. Clair leads a group of young fighters down Main Street with shouts of “Huzzah” in 2012. Order a Print
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Observer-Reporter
Woodville Plantation members Rob Windhorst, Dan Ragaller and Bob Zimmerman fall in line during a re-enactment. Order a Print

For the past six years, re-enactors from Woodville Plantation have marched into the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion Festival attempting to quash the historic uprising unleashed by angry farmers fighting against an excise tax on grain alcohol.

The federal government soldiers portraying Wayne’s Fourth Sub-Legion are jeered and beaten back in skirmishes by the rebel farmers before the infamous tax collector is tarred and feathered as the rabid crowds roar with approval.

This year, the street theater of the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which begins Thursday in Washington and runs through Sunday, might end a little differently for the military re-enactors from the Woodville Plantation as they try to quell the rebellion.

“We beat them every year, then we go up and burn down their house,” Washington County Historical Executive Director Clay Kilgore said, referring to an event the following weekend remembering the history of the Neville House on Bower Hill in Scott Township. “We feel bad for them.”

The Washington County Historical Society has formed a tight partnership with members of Woodville Plantation along Route 50 in Kirwan Heights, which is the location of the home once owned by John and Presley Neville. Without the military showing up to counter the rebellion, the re-enactments wouldn’t feel as real to the crowds that have packed Washington since the festival began in 2011, Kilgore said.

“Those guys are great,” Kilgore said. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for them, we really couldn’t do what we do. We would have farmers, but you need to show the other side of it. To show that army coming out, without them it’s not going to happen.”

This year, members of Wayne’s Legion will get a little revenge as the street act’s scripted story that began during last year’s festival will culminate with the acknowledgement that the uprising is ultimately put down. Kilgore said they’ll explain how the rebellion ended with few shots fired, and the farmers were rounded up and forced to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.

“It’s a bittersweet end. We’ll have the tar and feathering, but we know we’re going to lose,” Kilgore said of the farmers’ perspective. “We know there are 10,000 men marching toward us. We’re going to show our spirit and make sure our voice is heard.”

The festival has become a major draw in Washington that attracts thousands from the region. It’s also been a great opportunity for people like Rob Windhorst, who is on Woodville’s board of directors, to spread its group’s message. They, along with the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park, have worked closely together rather than independently over the past decade, Windhorst said.

“We started looking at each other, and rather than being competitive, we’re all in this together,” said Windhorst, who will be dressed in military garb and carrying a fife and rifle during the festival.

The partnership has grown even closer now that Katie West, a curator from the Washington County Historical Society, has been hired to work as director for Woodville. The story of the Whiskey Rebellion and the burning of the Neville House – John Neville was the tax collector at the time – are one in the same, she said.

“It’s really important because they’re interpreting the other side of history,” West said of the soldiers. “They’re essentially representing the tax collectors, so it’s really great they work so well with the historical society and Bradford House to give the public a full view of the Whiskey Rebellion.”

This year’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival begins Thursday with the Farmers Market at 3 p.m. at the Main Street Pavilion, which then leads into concert performances by the Washington Festival Chorale at 7 p.m. and Washington Symphony Orchestra at 8.

There will be Blues, Brews and BBQs, with food and a concert at the pavilion beginning at 4 p.m. Friday.

The biggest festivities will be Saturday, which begins with the parade on Main Street in Washington at 10:30 a.m. There will be re-enactments throughout the day – in the city and at the Washington Park Frontier Fort site – along with the infamous tar and feathering at 5 p.m. The day’s events conclude with music at the pavilion and a fireworks display.

New this year will be events all day Sunday, beginning with a nondenominational church service involving several local churches at the pavilion at 11 a.m., with music beginning 30 minutes before the service. There also will be some street theater, food vendors and tours of the fort, where re-enactors will display weapons and tools.

“The last couple of years, the fort site has been open on Sunday,” Kilgore said. “We’ve been getting a decent turnout, so we said, ‘Let’s make it official.’”

The festival this weekend will prelude Whiskey Rebellion Day at the Woodville Plantation, 1375 Washington Pike, Bridgeville, from 1 to 5 p.m. July 16. There will be a full day of events at the plantation, with military encampments, drills and the re-enactments of the two-day battle at Bower Hill that ended with the Neville House burning to the ground.

That event tells the story of how only a dozen soldiers from Wayne’s Legion were sent from Fort Fayette in Pittsburgh in July 1794 to protect the Neville House. Meanwhile, they had to fend off 50 to 100 farmers during the first day of the battle before those rebel ranks swelled to more than 500 farmers before the house was burned.

That part of history won’t change, but Windhorst and his legion are happy to have a fighting chance at this year’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival.

“It should be a little different and a lot of fun this year,” Windhorst said.

For a complete schedule of events at the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, go to www.whiskeyrebellionfestival.com. For more information about the event at Woodville Plantation, go to www.woodvilleplantation.org.

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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