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NKU graduate Eric Kelso is fighting to preserve a historical building that was the birthplace of conversations that led to the Bill of Rights.  

Photo provided by Eric Kelso.
meetingminutes Stony Ridge Convention minutes. Photo provided by Eric Kelso.

“Every effort must be made to save this piece of our nation’s history for future generations…”

By Jayna Barker
NKU Marketing + Communications

On July 3, 1788, a group of anti-Federalists gathered in an unassuming tavern in central Pennsylvania to discuss the future of their country. On that night, inside what would later become known as Bell’s Tavern, the group discussed individual liberties— safeguards of democracy such as freedom of speech and religion and the right to bear arms—that they argued would keep the newly ratified U.S. Constitution from centralizing too much power within the federal government. From this meeting, led by prominent Anti-Federalist Robert Whitehill, a letter was circulated across the state of Pennsylvania calling for delegates to meet at a convention to be held September 3rd of that year in Harrisburg.

The Harrisburg Convention would craft 14 proposals to amend the Constitution—proposals that many historians believe to be the genesis of the Bill of Rights. In fact, Mr. Whitehill would go on to write six of the amendments in the Bill of Rights.

And it all started in a small tavern on a stony ridge in rural Pennsylvania.

Fast-forward 236 years later to the corner of Louis Parkway and Carlisle Pike in central Pennsylvania. Bell’s Tavern still stands—barely—after serving in recent decades as a private residence, a real estate office, a computer repair shop, and a used car dealership.

On January 6 of this year, Northern Kentucky University alumnus and Newberry Township, PA resident Eric Kelso came across a news story about the tavern’s partial demolition. Shocked at the potential loss of a historic icon, Kelso attended a nearby meeting where he met Christine Musser, a member of the township's preservation and conservation committee. Musser had been the first to alert township officials of the building’s historical significance after concerned citizens witnessed the start of demolition.

Kelso and Musser launched a grassroots group—Patriots for the Capt. Bell’s Tavern—that is working to raise funds to shore up the building and prevent further damage. Ultimately, Kelso says, the group would like to restore the partially destroyed building and turn it into a museum.

During Kelso’s time at NKU, he pursued an undergraduate degree in history. He was also a member of NKU’s Alpha Beta Phi fraternity—a local chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the International Honor Society in History. The history buff continued his education at NKU and graduated last May with a master’s degree in public history.

“This is exactly what my public history degree is designed for,” Kelso says. “I’m happy trying to save a building that is of national and historical significance. It’s not too often you get to be involved with something this important.”

So, exactly how did a building with such historical value come this close to being destroyed?

Kelso says that while the building was surveyed in 1992 and deemed as an eligible property for the National Registry of Historical Places, the property was never added to the registry. A private company was able to obtain a legal permit and began demolition to prepare the property for sale as a vacant lot. The company is currently in negotiations with the Silver Spring Township solicitor to negotiate the old tavern’s ultimate fate. Until then, the building is safe from further demolition until an agreement  is reached.

In the meantime, Kelso and the Patriots group are looking to raise as much awareness as possible to preserve our nation’s past and prevent Bell’s Tavern from being destroyed.

“We’re trying to show people how important these places are that need to be saved,” Kelso says. “We’re fighting for history that is hanging on by a thread.”

Eric Kelso (far left) after his graduation ceremony May 2015. Photo provided by Eric Kelso.