By Heather Holtschlag
Photo by Celeste Van Kirk
Clay Kilgore is no stranger to dirty hands. After 17 years at the Washington County Historical Society, starting out as a curator and eventually becoming the organization’s executive director, Kilgore has fulfilled many different roles during that span and loves every minute.
“Working at a non-profit means you fill a lot of different roles,” he says. “I like the variety that I do. I would not be happy sitting at a desk all day. But more than anything, I love the history of this county. We are at the crossroads of the Underground Railroad, we have the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, which is one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America, and we are home to the Whiskey Rebellion, one of the five most important events in early American history. And I get to be a part of it all.”
We recently sat down with Kilgore to talk more about Washington County’s rich history, his role at the Washington County Historical Society and the upcoming Whiskey Rebellion Festival.
For anyone who may not be familiar, what are the responsibilities of the Washington County Historical Society?
Our mission is to collect and preserve Washington County’s history, to increase awareness and to educate the public about the history and national significance of Washington County. It also is the responsibility of the Historical Society to preserve the sites under its administration, including the Francis J. LeMoyne House, the LeMoyne Crematory, the Norma K. Grimes Research Library and the Washington County Frontier History Center. The Historical Society uses these sites to educate the public by offering tours, special events, outreach programs and research services. As the repository for Washington County heritage, the Historical Society maintains an extensive collection of documents and artifacts.
When and where is this year’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival?
The Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, always falls on the second week in July. This year, it will be July 11-14. It takes place in downtown Washington, but there also are activities at the Frontier History Center in Washington Park.
What are some of this year’s Festival highlights?
We will have some wonderful musical acts, including the Bumper Jacksons and the Steel City Rovers, a large scale battle reenactment at the Frontier History Center, and both the Bradford House and the LeMoyne House will be open. As always, we end the history portion of Saturday with the tar and feathering of a tax collector. We do have something special planned for this year’s tar and feathering, but people will have to be there to see it.
What is the history of this event? How did it get started?
The festival began during the Bicentennial Celebration of the City of Washington in 2010. The Bicentennial Committee wanted to have a history day as part of the celebration. We had reenactors, demonstrators, vendors and hands-on activities. Seeing the reaction the public had to that history day, it was decided that we should have yearly history festival. We decided to theme it after Whiskey Rebellion because it is so unique to this area and something that we could claim as our own.
What keeps people coming back?
I think it is a combination of the history, reenactments, musical entertainment and vendors. We have something for everyone, so people of all ages and interests look forward to it each year. Also, where else can you see a tar and feathering reenactment right on the street where Whiskey Rebels once protested the Whiskey Excise Tax?
Are tickets required for this event?
There is no admission for the event, so there is no need for tickets.
What are some little-known facts about Washington County and the Whiskey Rebellion that people may not know?
Alexander Hamilton, treasury secretary and the man behind the excise tax that caused the Whiskey Rebellion, came to Washington in the fall 1794. The Federal Militia, commanded by General “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, was sent to put down the rebellion. They also wanted to arrest David Bradford for treason because of his role as leader of the rebellion. Hamilton joined the militia as an officer under Lee. He and Lee came to Washington to arrest Bradford. Hamilton would have stood in the hall of the Bradford House while the house was searched. When David was not located, Hamilton ordered the militia to make camp on the grounds of Washington Academy – now Washington and Jefferson College – where he would stay for just under a week. David was never captured, as he had made his escape to the Ohio territory and then eventually to New Orleans.