New museum ready to tell region’s role in Whiskey Rebellion

Mike Jones

Not everyone who passes by the Bradford House in Washington knows the historical significance of the old, stone building on South Main Street and its role in a rebellion.

But Tracie Liberatore hopes that will change soon with the opening of the new Whiskey Rebellion museum directly across the street that will tell the story about how this region became the epicenter of the country’s first insurrection in the early 1790s.

Liberatore, who is the executive director of the Bradford House Historical Association, will also run the Whiskey Rebellion Education and Visitor Center that will offer an immersive experience to visitors when it opens to the public April 7.

“It’s amazing how people walk by the Bradford House – a National Historic Landmark and with that beautiful stone – and don’t realize or have any idea. It’s completely unique to this area,” Liberatore said, noting that Alexander Hamilton knocked on its front door in 1794 while quelling the rebellion. “It is downtown Washington history. It is kind of glossed over in the schools.”

The Bradford House was built by local attorney David Bradford, who railed against the excise tax and mobilized local farmers to rebel against the federal government. He fled to Spanish West Florida in modern-day Louisiana before federal officials could find him.

Since 2011, the annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival in downtown Washington has told the story of the insurrection with live re-enactments. The Bradford House nonprofit organization wanted to expand its own museum to tell the story to a wider audience outside the annual festival, which was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But since the house itself is an historic landmark that can’t be altered, a separate museum was needed to allow visitors an opportunity to learn more about the region’s rebellious history.

Architectural drawings were designed in January 2020, with an opening date expected a few months later. But many construction industries shut down at the beginning of the pandemic last spring, and the opening date had to be pushed back nearly a year. Liberatore said they used that delay to make the exhibits even better.

“On the flip side, we were really able to dive into the details,” Liberatore said of the shutdown during the pandemic. “We kept making sure the story was done right and told well.”

The museum includes replicas of an 18th century tavern and a whiskey still, which Liberatore said are “hands-on exhibits that people can touch and experience.” There are also real artifacts from the period, including an alcoholmeter used by distiller John Hollcroft – who’s widely suspected to be rabble rouser Tom the Tinker – and an original copy of the modified excise act Congress approved in June 1794 that allowed trials to be held in local courts.

Dave Budinger and Laney Seirsdale were at the museum, which is located at 184 S. Main St., to give tours to the media Wednesday afternoon before dignitaries stopped by for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Budinger said the self-guided tours take about 45 minutes and offer “snapshots of key figures” along with paintings by the late artist Ray Forquer. The museum includes information about how other parts of the region were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion.

Chase McClain, the director of marketing for the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency, said the new museum will add to the “diverse mix of historical sites” elsewhere in the county.

The first tours by home-schooled students will begin in April, with the expectation that students in public schools will be able to visit when COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

Both the house and museum are operated jointly by the nonprofit Bradford House Historical Association and will work in tandem to educate visitors. The museum was built using donations from the public, along with support from the Allegheny Foundation, EQT Foundation and the Salvitti Family Foundation.

“The visitors center is an extension of our story,” Liberatore said. “It’s one of a kind.”

There is no entry fee to the Whiskey Rebellion museum, but donations are accepted. The museum will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday from April through November.