Inside City Hall in Washington, Pa., you will find a giant portrait of George Washington, the first president of the United States and the man for which the town and county are named.
Most people in modern-day Washington County rather like the man who has been hailed as the founding father of U.S. confederation, but years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a fan of the man in this part of the United States. Gen. Washington was so disliked that some local mapmakers refused to delineate the community by its legal name and instead called it “Dandridge Town.”
Washington County, Pa., has a long and fascinating history — one that ironically involves a major conflict with the man for whom the county and town are named. In 1791 with the U.S. trying to pay off its war debt, President Washington imposed a large excise tax on distilled whiskey. It was the first time the federal government had ever issued a tax on a particular product and it became an experiment in how taxation would work in the newly-formed union.
Nobody likes taxes and local farmers particularly disliked this tax. Farmers in Western Pennsylvania used their leftover grain to make whiskey and then rather than selling the whiskey, they mostly bartered with it for other products or consumed it themselves. Since most farmers did not sell the whiskey for cash, it was difficult to pay a tax on it. To further complicate matters, Congress decided that a whiskey producer would be taxed on the number of gallons of whiskey his still could produce rather than the number of gallons he actually produced.
Furthermore, the tax was to be collected before any whiskey was made — at the start of the growing season instead of at the end.
Farmers in Western Pennsylvania felt this tax was unfair and rose up in what has since been dubbed the great Whiskey Rebellion. It was an armed conflict that had the potential of toppling the then-fragile government.
Washington didn’t know much about how to implement taxation but he knew plenty about war. He brought in 13,000 soldiers and put down the rebellion without ever firing a shot. The casualties from the rebellion were pretty much confined to tax collectors.
Though the rebels failed in their cause, their actions caused Washington to rethink the way the government taxed goods and helped to shape a fairer taxation system while influencing the development of the United States as a nation.
Today, the Whiskey Rebellion is celebrated like all U.S. civil conflicts — with a festival and re-enactments.
Exploring history in Washington County
Washington County is rich in history and exploring that history is one of the primary activities for visitors to this part of Pennsylvania, which is about an hour’s drive southwest of Pittsburgh.
The Washington County Historical Society is led by Clay Kilgore, a young historian with a knack for relating the legends and stories of the region. He can often be found at the historical houses dressed in costume.
Here are some of the top places and activities that bring history alive for visitors:
• The David Bradford House: David Bradford was a successful lawyer, businessman, and attorney general of Washington County when he became a key figure in the Great Whiskey Rebellion. His home, which was built in 1788, shows what life was like for a gentleman in Washington County during that time. It’s also a place to learn about the rebellion and the role it played in the newly formed United States. A number of events like Whiskey Rebellion dinners and re-enactments during the Whiskey Rebellion Festival bring the history of this place alive (www.bradfordhouse.org).
• F. Julius LeMoyne House: The LeMoyne House (www.wchspa.org) was built in 1812 and was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses that were used by African American slaves to escape to free states and to Canada. LeMoyne was a notable abolitionist who operated a doctor’s office and a pharmacy from the house and also built the first crematory in the United States. There is concrete evidence in the form of letters and correspondence that prove the house was part of the Underground Railroad. Harbouring runaway slaves was a dangerous activity and few former safe houses can provide concrete evidence today that they were used for that purpose. A museum in the house has a number of artefacts that showcase the history of the area.
• Festivals: The two key historical festivals in Washington County are the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which takes place from July 10 to 12, 2014 (www.whiskeyrebellionfestival.com), and the Covered Bridge Festival, from Sept. 20 to 21, 2014 (http://visitwashingtoncountypa.com). The Whiskey Rebellion Festival features historical re-enactments, street theatre, historical demonstrations, food and live music. The Covered Bridge Festival brings thousands of visitors to the area. Ten covered bridges serve as the festival locations and visitors enjoy arts and crafts, food, historical re-enactments, demonstrations, children’s activities and live entertainment.
• Covered bridges: Covered bridges have become a symbol of bygone days and are a tourist attraction wherever they are found. There are 29 covered bridges in Washington County and nearby Greene County and a self-directed driving tour is popular (www.pacoveredbridges.com/washington-county).
• Pennsylvania Trolley Museum: At the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum (www.pa-trolley.org) you can see a collection of nearly 50 restored trolleys and even ride a trolley. The museum was started in 1954 and provides an insight into the days when trolley transportation was popular. A highlight of the collection is the “Streetcar Named Desire,” which was used in the original screenplay.
• Meadowcroft Rock Shelter and Historical Village: The Meadowcroft Rock Shelter (www.heinzhistorycenter.org/meadowcroft.aspx) is the oldest site of human habitation in North America. Visitors can see the archeological site and tour a reconstructed mid-19th century settler’s village and a 16th century Native American village. There is also a walking trail and onsite interpretive programs that reveal what life was like for people who lived at the time depicted in the two historical villages.
For more information on Washington County, Pa., visit the official tourism website at www.visitwashingtoncountypa.com.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.