Good plots are often hatched in bars.
Those plots may be of the subversive type, or they may be of the book type.
Harrisburg author Diane McCormick discovered both in a tour of some of Pennsylvania’s most notorious watering holes, a journey she relates in her new book, “Well Behaved Taverns Seldom Make History: Pennsylvania Pubs Where Rabble-Rousers and Rum Runners Stirred up Revolutions.”
I recently sat down with McCormick, who told me how history often has been made when a dose of grievance met a dose of alcohol.
TheBurg: What was the origin of your idea?
McCormick: It came to me at Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford, Pa. My husband has family up there. So, we frequently travel up there and always make the stop at the Jean Bonnet, which has Whiskey Rebellion ties. Probably 2½ years ago, I was sitting there one day in this awesome tavern at the bar drinking a Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout and eating a grilled ham-and-cheese thing. I looked around, and I thought, “You know, a lot of pubs probably have rebellious ties. A lot of rebellions have pubs at their heart.” I just thought about it for quite some time, kept it to myself. Then, in the summer of 2017, around May, I started looking at my schedule, and I thought, “I might have some time to put into this, this summer.” I carefully walked up to my husband. He’s an excellent judge of topics and content. I said, “Well, what do you think of this idea?” He said, “I love it. It’s great. It could work.”
TheBurg: The topic of this book suits Pennsylvania very well. We’re pretty much synonymous with revolution and rebellion and drinking.
McCormick: Exactly. I said—Pennsylvania has pubs. Pennsylvania is famous for rebellions. You bring people with gripes to a public gathering place. You have some rum or beer or Madeira or applejack, and the flame torch is lit. So, people grab a pitchfork and go marching.
When I sat down and thought about my criteria, it came down to any sort of era in American history where people defied authority in some sort of way. So, yes, you had the American Revolution, but I also kind of skipped through eras. The last one I had was Prohibition because what’s more iconoclastic than a speakeasy? So, I ended up with the American Revolution, Whiskey Rebellion, a rebellion called Fries’s Rebellion, which is an absolute hoot, the canal-building era, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Molly Maguires and Prohibition. There are 12 pubs total. So, it was any time that Americans said, “We don’t like this law. So, we’re either going to ignore it or we’re going to defy it.”
TheBurg: So, you cut it off before the Harrisburg incinerator forensic audit?
McCormick: Yeah, that’ll be next [laughter]. If I could find a bar related to it.
TheBurg: I think all the planning went on in McGrath’s [laughter].
McCormick: I tried as much as I could to go with places where the ties are authentic. For instance, there is a bar called the Molly Maguires in Jim Thorpe. But it’s a tribute bar. So, I tried to avoid that. I went to places that definitely had clear ties to these events.
For instance, the Dobbin House in Gettysburg. It’s very hard to prove underground railroad tales, but the gentleman who built the Dobbin House as his home in 1776 was a minister. They were very abolitionist. His son was a known abolitionist. When the son became an elderly gentleman, he passed on the mantle of the underground railroad to a young man, who then wrote in 1911 his recollections. So, that’s pretty good documentary evidence. It’s not proof, but he did build a second floor with a space about 3½ feet high between them with a sliding panel. Why else would you do that? So, yes, I tried to go with places that have a direct connection and have that authentic piece of history involved.
TheBurg: What did you consider to be the most interesting place you visited?
McCormick: There were different aspects to each that were fascinating. City Tavern in Philly, even though it is a re-creation because the original was torn down in 1850-something, it is as meticulous a reproduction as the National Park Service could create, even down to the fact that City Tavern had this marvelous bell system that was very technologically advanced for its day, which was just bells with wires going through walls. If you were in the basement, and Gen. Washington’s oyster stew was ready, you would ring the bell and somebody would come down. The bell would be on the second floor, and it would ring up there, and they’d come down and get it. Plus, the food was tremendous there. I also loved the speakeasies. They were fun just because there was so much lurking underneath the surface.
TheBurg: Where were they?
McCormick: The Horse Inn in Lancaster. That is a must-go place. It actually has been in operation since it was a speakeasy. It’s called the Horse Inn because it was a loft to a horse stable.
In Easton, a speakeasy is now Two Rivers Brewing Co. That’s only been around a few years, but they bought this decrepit building at sheriff’s sale. The owner had to break into his own building. But the bar is still there that was put in during the ‘20s. Like in the middle of Prohibition, people just ordered bars from Sears and put in the bar. Easton was sin city. It was famous because people leaving the fights at Madison Square Garden would hear barkers say, “Going to Easton. Going to Easton.” And you would get in a car or a bus and go to Easton—and prostitution, gambling, booze, anything you wanted. There’s this whole alley that was nothing but brothels.
TheBurg: It makes it seem like we live in very tame times.
McCormick: Exactly. I think that, sometimes, we think of the past as this upright time of probity, and everyone was so genteel and dancing the minuet. George Washington chose his table at City Tavern so that he could see anyone coming into the room or into the building. An assassin could come after him at any time. So, he sat where he could see anything.
TheBurg: So much of civic life used to happen in taverns. People even voted in taverns.
McCormick: Taverns were the public gathering places—taverns and churches. In churches, you weren’t going to patronize prostitutes or drink or fight someone or debate politics. So, you went to your local pub for that. Pubs were also places of trials. With Jean Bonnet, I get into that. At the Jean Bonnet, there’s a longstanding story about a hanging right inside the tavern. It was a place where there were trials. There are several versions of that story, but one I heard was that a man burst into the tavern. He’s a white man, a local. He says, “The Indians are after me.” Of course, all the patrons are up in arms. They’re ready to fight. The Native Americans arrive and they say, “Yeah, we’re chasing the guy. He stole our horses!” So, they held a trial right there—guilty. Hanged from the stairwell.
TheBurg: Swift and unfair.
McCormick: Yes. There also was a legend that a body was found in the basement with a bullet hole in the head at the Jean Bonnet. Yeah, they were gathering places, and, sure, the fact that there was liquor there would make people get even more heated up about whatever their gripes might be.
Now Fries’s Rebellion was a doozy. At the time, there was a house tax imposed by the federal government to pay for defense. And these Pennsylvania German farmers who had fought in the Revolution said, “Wait, I thought we were fighting against unjust taxes.” So, they started protesting. Things reached a point where these guys one day just got totally drunk, took several of the tax collectors hostage.
First, they were at a pub called McCoole’s in Quakertown that I was in. Then they went into another pub, where they found out that some of their compatriots were being held at a pub in Bethlehem. That’s only about 15 miles away. So, totally drunk, they started marching toward Bethlehem. Well, lo and behold, it’s the Sun Inn, which is a famous inn with revolutionary ties, because all the founding fathers stopped there, because it was basically the only nice inn between Philadelphia and New York.
So, this drunken mob—100 people, 400 people, accounts differ—were on the march, but the marshal holding the place only had 15 or so men. So, he didn’t have much choice. My favorite part was when this mob was marching into Bethlehem. They got to a toll bridge, and the marshal told them, “Stop right there. We’re not gonna let you come in.” They said, “We’re coming in. We’re gonna take our friends. We’re gonna take these prisoners away from you, no matter what.” So, he paid the toll and crossed the bridge into the inn. So, I read that and said to myself, “He paid the toll?” But that made sense. That was a tax that made sense. It paid for the road that you used—a road farmers used to take their goods to market. So, they paid the toll to get across the bridge to continue the rebellion.
It was important to me to find standing taverns, standing bars. I didn’t want this to be a guide to places you could drive past and go, “Oh, that happened there.” So, I wanted to be sure that you could go there, eat the burger, drink the beer, drink the special drinks. So, I get into that in each chapter, as well. I talk about what they might specialize in, what their specialty drinks are and tell people what I tried. At Two Rivers Brewing Co., I had a peanut butter bacon cheeseburger. They said, “Best in the Valley.” And, sure enough, Lehigh Valley Live voted it their best burger, and it was the type that you had to hold the whole time with both hands, and it’s just dripping down your hands. They had an awesome burger. The Horse Inn in Lancaster had an awesome burger. The food everywhere I went was just great.
TheBurg: What was the most distant place you went to from here?
McCormick: Probably the Black Bass Hotel. That was one with ties to the canal-building era. It was a morgue for dead canal workers. They were dying, dropping like flies, mostly Irish, keeling over from malaria and typhoid and such. They needed a nice, cool, stone-walled building to keep the bodies. So, that’s literally on the Delaware River looking out over New Jersey on the other side. That was a fun place because I got into the canal era, the reputations of the canal-builders, a lot of workers’ rights issues came up, the exploitation of these workers. And they had a reputation for being such rowdy, dirty drunks. But they worked from sunup to sundown. There was a saying that went, “It’s easy to build a canal. All you need is a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and an Irishman.”
TheBurg: And I’m sure the owners valued the pick and the shovel more than the Irishman.
McCormick: Very likely. There’s one thing I want to bring up, and it came up quite clearly at the Black Bass. The manager who showed me around, a Scottish man named Grant Ross, was very careful to make it clear that there is legend and there’s more legend. And he was not about to prove or disprove anything. I tried in the writing of this to make clear when I knew something was fact and something was legend.
TheBurg: But legends are fun, especially if you’re in a bar.
McCormick: What else are bars for, except to give birth to legends? So, I just tried to make it clear when I was getting into legendary territory, but those were the fun stories to tell. Sometimes, the factual story wasn’t as fun. But I would share that, OK, here’s what some people say really happened, but here’s the legend, because it’s a lot of fun.
“Well Behaved Taverns Seldom Make History: Pennsylvania Pubs Where Rabble-Rousers and Rum Runners Stirred Up Revolutions,” by M. Diane McCormick (Sunbury Press) can be found online and in select bookstores.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Disclosure: Diane McCormick is a freelance writer for TheBurg.