A newsmaker you should know: Museum director Kilgore keeps very busy

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Lecturer, event organizer, working blacksmith, basketball player, nature lover, log house builder and historian.

Clay Kilgore, 34, wears many hats, but the two he said fit best are curator/interim director of the Washington County Historical Society and director of the David Bradford House museum in Washington, Pa.

Last weekend he had on his society cap telling stories of public hangings at the LeMoyne crematorium on Washington's Gallows Hill, when the society held its Ghastly Tales event in the nation's very first crematorium.

"We had a made-up body lying on a bier in the crematorium where I also constructed a gallows," Mr. Kilgore explained.

On Friday and Saturday he'll don his Bradford director's hat along with 18th-century period attire, carry a lantern through the streets of Washington and tell ghost stories as one of the guides.

The Ghosts of Washington tours from 6 to 9:30 p.m. each night leave from the David Bradford House, 175 S. Main St. in Washington. Cost is $5 per, and no reservations are required.

Mr. Kilgore is also a talented blacksmith, a trade he picked up from his metallurgist father, Ed, and as an intern at the Meadowcroft Museum of Rural Life in Avella, where he studied blacksmithing under museum director Dave Scofield.

"I discovered that I'm the ninth-generation blacksmith or metal worker in my family," said Mr. Kilgore, who gives blacksmithing demos at area festivals and makes customized reproductions of items like swords, knives and cooking equipment.

As curator of the thousands of items and more than 165,000 documents in the historical society collections, he said he comes across some "off-the-wall items," such as samples of ashes of the nation's first cremation said to have occurred on Dec. 6 1876.

Two of his favorite items in the collections are associated with a nitroglycerin explosion on Maiden Street in Washington that took place in the 1890s when wagoner Sam Bigley hauled a load of nitroglycerin and dynamite and hit a bump.

The historical society has in its collection two of Mr. Kilgore's favorite artifacts. One is a horseshoe that blew off the horse, flew down the street and wedged in a nearby house. The other is a shard of the hub of the wagon wheel, the biggest piece left after the explosion.

Starting in 2006, Mr. Kilgore organized four biennial history symposiums on life and customs in early Western Pennsylvania, held in conjunction with Washington & Jefferson College.

"This year's theme was the Whiskey Rebellion [of 1791-1794], and because it's a presidential election year, we invited Presidents Washington and Jefferson to debate the issue," Mr. Kilgore noted.

Wearing his hat as director of the David Bradford House, home of the most famous whiskey rebels, he helped organize the annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which started out in 2007 as a Rebel Fair. As part of the city of Washington's Bicentennial in 2010, the fair was expanded and became the festival that this year drew 8,000 people for three days of concerts, period re-enactments, demonstrations and crafts.

Mr. Kilgore has also turned the David Bradford House into a living history museum, having guides wear period attire and demonstrate period activities during special events. Recently, he also helped build an 18th-century log house in back of the museum, similar to the one that existed when the Bradfords lived there.

Under his directorship, the 1805 addition to the house museum has been converted into an 18th-century tavern called the Sign of the Seven Stars, an allusion to one of the flags made by the whiskey rebels to represent the seven area counties that took part in the rebellion.

In his spare time, the historian is renovating a 1950s-style house in Loganda to its original era with the addition of period tile, cabinets and appliances. Following the completion of the renovation, he plans to move into the structure. In the meantime, he lives on his family farm in West Finley, a place where he hopes to build a log house sometime in the future to become his permanent home.

neigh_south - neigh_washington

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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