Washington celebrates Whiskey Rebellion Festival

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The tax collector wasn’t tickled by the prospect of feathers.

In fact, they eventually caused him shame and pain and forced relocation. Farmers, rebelling against a federal excise tax on whiskey, seized the collector and made him pay instead, tarring and feathering him in response to the new congressional law.

No, that didn’t happen in downtown Washington Saturday evening. But it seemed that way when the 1790s event was replicated – graphically – during the third annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which reached a crescendo on its third day. Crowds were enormous, enthusiastic and sweltering throughout a rare day of sunshine that featured 12 hours of activities, beginning with a morning parade and climaxing with a fireworks blast.

Joe Manning, Washington city council member and one of three festival overlords, said at midafternoon he was thrilled with how Saturday’s events were unfolding. To that point, he estimated the number of festivalgoers for the day at 5,000 to 7,000, and that evening concerts and the fireworks could hoist that figure to 10,000 to 15,000.

“This is a great celebration for the city and for our history,” Manning said. “All of July, it’s seemed like we’ve been in Seattle. The weather is finally smiling on us.”

Festivities along North and South Main Street included music, canon and musket fire, historical tours, children’s events, arts and crafts shows and sales, horse-drawn carriage rides and demonstrations of skills common in the late 18th century such as blacksmithing, quilting and spinning.

By 9:30 a.m., spectators had crowded both sides of the parade route along Main. The 40-minute parade included police cars, fire trucks, bands from Washington and Trinity high schools, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair), a Wild Things car painted like a baseball and Washington County Commissioner Harlan Shober in a post-Colonial three-cornered hat.

There also were five re-enactments, with the actors using microphones on a sound system implemented for the first time for this festival. The re-enactments included the punishment of the tax collector that was equal parts appalling and exciting to audience members. And was based on fact.

The Whiskey Rebellion lasted from 1791 to 1794, during the United States’ formative years. Western Pennsylvania farmers bartered with whiskey – they did not make money on it – but now had to pay taxes on it and protested.

In 1791, the rebels attacked the fortified home of of one Western Pennsylvania tax collector, then went after Robert Johnson, a tax collector in Washington County. On Sept. 11 of that year, they spilled tar and dumped feathers on him, a gooey mess that was painful and painfully demoralizing.

Former county Commissioner Bracken Burns said the rebels also cut Johnson’s hair and stuffed some of what remained through a hole in his three-cornered hat “to make him look like a fool. They took him to the border of Westmoreland County and sent him packing near the Mon River.”

The conflict lasted for more than three years, until President George Washington sent a militia of 13,000 men to this area. By that time, the rebellion had been quelled.

David Bradford, a Washington attorney, was one of the rebels’ leaders. He fled to Louisiana, and was eventually pardoned by President John Adams. Burns, dressed in period attire, portrayed Bradford at the Bradford House on Saturday.

The first re-enactment, shortly after the parade, provided a sampling of the confrontation that appeared imminent more than two centuries ago.

Town crier Tony DePalma, former WJPA news announcer from Canonsburg, set the scene that was unfolding as a U.S. marshal, accompanied by Federal soldiers with bayonets fixed, marched toward the rebels. The marshal was serving writs on farmers who hadn’t paid the excise tax and demanded that the farmers lay down their arms, provoking an angry response by Tom the Tinker that they were not going to accept the tax. As the soldiers marched forward, the rebels retreated while Tom vowed they would continue the fight.

Tom was portrayed by Clay Kilgore, director of the Bradford House and a devoted historian.

The festival, initiated a year after the city’s 2010 bicentennial celebration, will end its third run today with the Classics on Main classic car show that begins at noon.

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