Whiskey Rebellion Festival brings good times to Washington

20170708_WhiskeyRebellionFestival-123Story by Keren Lee Dreyer

When Alexander Hamilton levied his tax on distilled spirits in 1790, ostensibly to bring needed funds to the U.S. government – but some would argue to incite conflict, allowing to the Federal Government to assert its supremacy over the states – he could not have known that the unpopular tax and resultant uprising would lead to…good times and good music.

Those good times get underway in the streets and park of Washington, PA during the annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival. The four day event, running from Thursday, July 5 through Sunday, July 8, features historically correct reenactments, museum tours, Lil’ Rebels Heritage Areas for the kids at Washington Park and, of course, excellent music from a variety of acts ranging from blues to bluegrass.

Festival volunteer Brant Garda spends the year between festivals developing scripts with historian Clay Kilgore, Director of Washington County Historical Society. Dedicated re-enactors bring life to the scripts during pre-planned scenes at the festival, ultimately providing visitors with a vivid, living history unavailable in mere textbooks.

“We have a lot of repeat performers, and they’ve done a ton of research on the people they portray,” Garda said. “As we go through the rehearsal process, they bring insights we hadn’t thought about, so I’d call the scripts about 90% complete before we start rehearsals.”

Garda further notes that members of the rebellion reenactment groups know the period and history so well, they make their own costumes according to the period of the time and will converse with visitors using only language of the time. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how much they’ve learned from a 15 minute vignette,” Garda said.

Garda relates a story of an actor’s dedication to his role at last year’s festival: “One guy walked around to the taverns as an excise officer, stepped in and announced the tavern was closed until everyone signed the ledger for the excise tax. He stood in the door until everyone signed this massive leather ledger he had. There was an actual (modern day) security guard standing there getting a good chuckle out of it.”

The street reenactments culminate in the tar and feathering of a tax collector. Garda said that while the most well known Whiskey Rebellion tar and feathering was that of Robert Johnson, there were actually about half a dozen who also received the treatment. “We’ve made it more of a spectacle than in previous years, getting more people involved. The reality of it would have been a handful of men down a side street.” Festival goers will be relieved to know that corn starch infused Hershey’s syrup will be used here rather than the traditional pine tar of the past.

20170708_WhiskeyRebellionFestival-341Strike Up the Bands

Good times call for good music, and this year’s festival features local and regional bands and performers, all coordinated by festival volunteer Lee Stivers.

“I have this really great job of lining up bands people get to see for free” Stivers enthused. “It’s Americana music – acoustic, blues, Celtic heritage, and some playing more historically correct types of music” she added. By working with organizations such as the Blues Society of Pennsylvania and the International Bluegrass Music Association, Stivers is able to bring “something for everybody.”

Three stages throughout the festival will feature music on Saturday, July 7 from 11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Festival-goers can hear music in the Pioneer Room in the George Washington Hotel and the Bradford House garden, and enjoy headliners on the main stage at the Community Pavilion on Main Street.

Friday night is blues night at the festival’s main stage, beginning with acoustic blues featuring Eleanor Ellis & Backporch Blues, at 7:30 p.m., followed by headliner and VizzTone recording artist, Amanda Fish, at 8:30 with her roots-rock style blues.

Saturday night’s main stage headliner features bluegrass band Wood and Wire out of Austin, Texas. “I’ve been following them for several years and have gotten to see them several times” Stivers said, “I’m blown away by the musicianship, virtuosity, and energy these guys put out on stage. They do such a good job of playing bluegrass, but then just blow into the jam scene. They’re really quite good.”

Then on Sunday, a number of churches will feature non-denomination services with “sermons of the time where they’re trying to quell the rebellion,” Garda said. “Reverend McMillan was insistent that anyone attending the church after the rebellion was put down sign a pledge of allegiance to the Federal government to leave their arms down and not revolt again.”

20170708_WhiskeyRebellionFestival-261The Whiskey Rebellion Festival, music, and kids activities are all free to the public, and “will wrap up with fireworks, because you can’t be in southwest Pennsylvania without fireworks” Garda said.

For complete information on Whiskey Rebellion Festival events and activities, visit whiskeyrebellionfestival.com

Check out “Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Tax” at ttb.gov/public_info/special_feature.shtml for a more detailed account of events leading to the Whiskey Rebellion