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I know, I promised y'all a food diary tonight. But I began writing this, and I got really into it, so I decided to post this tonight. You'll get the fried basmati rice diary soon, though!

I've actually been meaning to write this diary for a while. Over winter break, I went back to my home state of Pennsylvania to spend Christmas with my family. My family lives in Warren County, a rural area in the northwestern part of the state that doesn't have much going for it other than the nice people and the scenery. It's located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, so I guess you could call it Appalachia with some degree of accuracy--and there is definitely an Appalachia feel to the area. Here's our bustling county seat and largest city of Warren, which has a population of just under 10,000 people.

Anyway, while I was home, I read up on some local history. There are mammoth books written on the political and legal history of the area (seriously, I'm not making this shit up--there is a massive, multi-volume series of books on every minute detail you could ever not want to know). I was more drawn, however, to a book by Arch Bristow, published in 1932, called Old Time Tales of Warren County. Bristow, an amateur historian of the area, was more interested in "the picturesque and romantic lore" in the county's history. Much of it comes from stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. So, as you can imagine, the stories do need to be taken with a certain grain of salt, as with any oral history. But it's probably safe to say that many of the stories in the book have some kind of grounding in truth, even if some details have been exaggerated or altered over the years.

One such story especially piqued my interest--a story called "The Pittsfield Riot."

Pittsfield is a tiny village of just a few hundred people located about fourteen miles west of Warren. The town is situated at the intersection of U.S. Route 6 and PA Route 27 (informally known as "the Y" because of the Y-shape the two roads form when they diverge), both major roads, so many motorists probably pass through Pittsfield without ever knowing it exists. You really can blink and miss it. Here is Main Street, otherwise known as Route 27, in "downtown" Pittsfield:

And here's another main street of Pittsfield, Dalrymple Street. Just to give you an idea of the kind of town Pittsfield is. Of course, it's not hard to be a main street when there are only a few in the entire town.

I was raised in an even smaller town a few miles down the road from Pittsfield, but I still have very deep roots in Pittsfield. I went to elementary school there, in a building that has since been shut down and abandoned. My family went to church there. My dad is buried on a hill overlooking the sleepy valley in which the town is located. When I got older, I would often ride my bike the few miles from our house to the gas station at "the Y" and buy a bottle of Pepsi (yes, this was a big deal--give me a break, there was nothing else to do in the days before my area had DSL). So I know Pittsfield pretty well. But what I didn't know was that there was supposedly a "riot" that made blood almost literally flow in the streets in this small village a century and a half ago. Now that I stop to think about it, I'm pretty sure I heard my grandmother reference the Pittsfield Riot a few times, but I was not curious enough at that age to ask what it was. Only now am I looking at Bristow's retelling of the event and asking myself why more people in the area don't know anything about this interesting bit of local lore. Follow me below the fold.

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The story, as Bristow tells it, takes place in July of the year 1866. Bristow's telling of the story is based on the oral retelling of the firsthand account of a twelve-year-old boy named John Long who witnessed the riot up close.

It all started when a circus called the Fitzpatrick Show came to Pittsfield, parked its wagons, and pitched its tents one July afternoon. Bristow sets the scene as follows:

Fitzpatrick's Show was an overland organization traveling in some twelve wagons drawn by mules which had seen service in the civil war and could illustrate the speed and force of a rebel cannonball with their treacherous heels. The show got in late, arriving dusty and hot in the middle of the afternoon, after showing Columbus [another small town about 15 miles west of Pittsfield] the night before. Canvas men, drivers and performers were all a bit on edge, so much so they nearly all found it immediately necessary to adjourn to the four barrooms then doing business in Pittsfield to slake a deep and long-felt thirst.
For a small town, Pittsfield had a thriving bar culture at one time. According to Bristow, there were four bars in the town. Today, there are no bars within the village itself. However, the old Acock's Tavern building is still standing, a once-prominent bar and now a historical building. I remember when it was the Pittsfield Inn and was still a bar, and then a new owner took over and started a restaurant there, giving it the old name Acock's Inn. Today, the building is empty, to the best of my knowledge.

The Fitzpatrick Show men visited every bar in town, so as not to show favoritism.

There was no afternoon show, but there was quite a crowd in the evening. Before the show, as was typical in Pittsfield in 1866, men crowded the bars and got drunk. There was even more drinking this time, since it wasn't every day a circus plopped itself in the middle of town. This called for celebration. After all, whiskey was only 35 cents a quart. You can already tell things are not going to go well for the Fitzpatrick Show in Pittsfield.

Bristow describes the show that evening:

The big drum began booming inside the tent, horns tooted, the crowd literally swamped the ticket seller in its efforts to get good seats at the great and only Fitzpatrick's Show. Large oil torches which burned with a waving, flickering flame, filling the tent top with clouds of black smoke provided the only light for the evening performance. The torches were continually dripping blazing drops, which remained burning till they struck the ground, and after, having to be stamped out by canvas men stationed there for the purpose. Oil lamps of any sort being daringly new, an added thrill was provided all the nervous ladies present at no extra charge.

With the tent jammed to the roof and a third of the audience standing, the performance, advertised to begin promptly at eight, started about nine o'clock. It was a hot July night, what with the big torches and the packed crowd the air inside the tent was sweltering, a-reek with oil smoke, whiskey and the odor of a cheap, brittle candy sold among the seats and crunched with coarse, grinding sounds, by men and boys, like a hog eating coal. It was a big, big night for Pittsfield, and was to be even bigger than anyone imagined.

After the show ended and most of the crowds went home, some men remained in the large tent to gamble. Word quickly spread that some good games were being played, and the crowd grew. Drunk men and gambling...nothing could go wrong, right?

Indeed, something did go wrong. Bristow talks about the spark that lit the town on fire, so to speak:

It started with Obed Dalrymple kicking over the faro table. In a few seconds a full sized riot was under way. Men who have seen a lot of fighting in their day say they never witnessed anything like this. Some fierce impulse seemed to sweep through the men like an oil well fire. Suddenly they were all ablaze with fury, hitting, kicking, smashing, fighting wickedly and to a finish.

Half the showmen were at Acock's Tavern. Someone rushed the word to them and "out they swarmed, two abreast," to use the words of an eye witness, John Long. With the cry of "hey rube," the showmen summoned all their forces and assailed the townsfolk. Armed with clubs, stakes, anything they could seize on they ran amok, hitting every head that didn't look as if it belonged to Fitzpatrick's Show.

Then, the story goes, the men of Pittsfield emerged from their houses and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Fitzpatrick Show men. According to Bristow:
It was the biggest hand-to-hand combat ever fought within the peaceful borders of Warren County, a midnight battle which began at twelve and lasted, with sudden later upflarings, half the night.

The life of no one outdoors was safe. Non combatants, caught in the fighting area, climbed shade trees and hid among the leafy branches till morning. Peaceful citizens of Pittsfield who had lingered on the streets after the show for one reason or another suddenly found themselves in the midst of a mad mob composed of two factions which ran through the streets, knocking down anyone who happened along. The showmen were looking for towners, the laymen were laying out the showmen, where possible. The main street of the village looked like a battle field, with stunned men lying here and there. Showmen carrying clubs ran through yards and alleys, looking for victims. Some citizens, unable to gain the sanctuary of their homes, hid in woodsheds till morning. The night was full of yells and curses, groans from the bruised and battered. Two men would meet in the dark, assail each other without waiting to discover whether they were friends or enemies.

Apparently, nobody was killed in the fighting, which lasted until dawn. But Bristow says that one young man was beaten so badly that his mother could not recognize him.

The Fitzpatrick Show men stayed in Pittsfield another week settling fines and waiting for their injured to recover. One of the Fitzpatrick Show men wrote the following ballad about the incident, entitled "The Pittsfield Riot":

O listen to my story
And I will let you know
About the awful riot
At the great Fitzpatrick Show.
'Twas in the town of Pittsfield
That we recall so well
That happened all this trouble
That I to you will tell.
The show was out and over,
The crowd had left the ground,
At the three card monte table
Some men had gathered 'round.
Soon someone said "He's cheating,"
Another cried "You lie,"
The cards they all were scattered
And soon the fists did fly.
Long years will we remember
That fight of great renown
That was fought in Pennsylvania,
'Way back in Pittsfield town.
And so my song is ended,
The song you all should know
Of the famous Pittsfield riot
At the great Fitzpatrick Show.
How many details of the above story are exactly accurate, I don't know. There are certain records that could be pulled, I imagine, that might back up some of the story, but I didn't have the time or the energy over winter break to attempt something like that. But I think it's fairly safe to say that something resembling a large fight did happen in Pittsfield in 1866. These stories are often grounded in truth, even if some of the details are embellished. Oral history, like any source, needs to be greeted with skepticism, but it's no less valid a source.

I do wonder what exactly happened and if the account in the book is close to the truth. Whatever the reality of what happened in July of 1866, I found reading about the Pittsfield Riot exceedingly interesting. I look at my hometown a little differently now.

TOP COMMENTS  
February 15, 2013

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From Noddy:

In Steven D's diary A New Threat To Our Freedoms: Women's Nipples, Bob Johnson recommends an interesting protest march.
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February 14, 2013


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1) assholes... by Melanie in IA — 234
2) I know this because Markos tweeted it earlier :) by ericlewis0 — 135
3) Don't blame the leader for not leading? by Bush Bites — 131
4) Oh please... by oxfdblue — 117
5) If you can't bring your own people along by wilbur — 116
6) The Times owes Tesla Motors an apology. by elwior — 97
7) You can't be anti-government and pro-America. by TheOrchid — 95
8) It's the same argument, really. by Melanie in IA — 82
9) Judith Miller. Judy Martin is Miss Manners. n/t by Meteor Blades — 81
10) The Aforementioned Ted Nugent by JekyllnHyde — 79
11) One of the most important stories of the decade by burlydee — 78
12) Yup by Steveningen — 77
13) We know a lot of people who were formerly by mrsgoo — 76
14) They aren't pointless... by RichM — 74
15) They should change their name to GNP by pat of butter in a sea of grits — 74
16) They don't hate America, my dear friend, by commonmass — 74
17) Actually, Tesla has a basis for a libel suit by Anne Elk — 73
18) Cornyn: "60-vote threshold for every nomination" by Jon Perr — 73
19) I loved him SO much. n/t by commonmass — 73
20) I'd like to talk to those folks who ponied up the by Bob Johnson — 70
21) The Republican Party does not support the troops by FishOutofWater — 69
22) agree by wilderness voice — 66
23) Wow ... by Bronxist — 65
24) They're upset because Desiline Victor by jayden — 65
25) (((((((♥salmonmass​♥))))))) by ericlewis0 — 65
26) Yes he did have 51 votes. by elwior — 64
27) Please take this in the spirit it is meant: by Regina in a Sears Kit House — 64
28) The whistle-blower part of Taibbi's piece by James Hepburn — 64
29) Perhaps Reid would have had 51 votes... by Notthemayor — 64
30) Absolutely appreciate by vtgal — 64
31) Mean-spirited all the way through by PsychoSavannah — 64

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February 14, 2013


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