Thursday, May 14, 2009

An Interview With "President Lincoln"

Through my travels in the reenacting/living history community I have met some wonderful people, and Fred & Bonnie Priebe are probably two of the more fascinating that I have had the pleasure to befriend. The two portray President and Mrs. Lincoln and, I would venture to believe, probably at times spend more time as the Lincoln's than as the Priebe's!
This past February I wrote an article for the newsletter of the Civil War unit I belong to, the 21st Michigan Co. H, about Mr. Lincoln in celebration of his 200th birthday.
I'd like to present it here:

President & Mrs. Lincoln aka Fred & Bonnie Priebe

On February 12, the 16th president of the United States turned 200 years old. It’s so hard to believe! I mean, I just saw him at Christmastime, looking his youthful self and enjoying the festivities of the season.
Wait! It was Abraham Lincoln I saw, looking his youthful self and enjoying the festivities of the season, wasn’t it? Well…yes and no. He certainly looked like Lincoln, and his wife was the spitting image of Mary Todd Lincoln, but…it was our favorite re-enactor Lincoln, Mr. Fred Priebe and his lovely wife, Bonnie!
When one meets Fred and Bonnie as the Lincolns, they feel as if they have truly come as close as one possibly can in our day and age to meeting the president and his wife. The Priebe’s get into a 1st person mode as soon as their period garments are on and will rarely step out of character.
They become the Lincoln's.
But I wanted to know, how did all of this begin for the couple?
Well, back in the days when our country still actually celebrated Lincoln’s birthday, as well as George Washington’s birthday, as separate holidays (and not President’s Day, as we do today), young Fred Priebe, who was in grammar school at the time, was always drawn to Abraham Lincoln, and when the class would make silhouettes of the two presidents, Fred always made one of his hero. As he grew older, his fondness of the 16th president grew with him, and he began to collect books about him and would continue studying the man. It was also during his youth that Fred remembers watching an old television program called “The Americans,” which was based on the Civil War. This helped to pique his interest in the war, but he really didn’t study it extensively until many years later.
Let’s jump up to the fall of 1995. Fred, already a veteran employee at Greenfield Village, was working at the The Eagle Tavern, a period restaurant that serves up genuine meals from the past. This was during the September ‘Old Car Festival’ (of all events), and he was “working the porch,” as he called it, and a visitor who noticed him began a conversation and told him that, with his beard he looked like Abraham Lincoln and should portray the 16th president as a reenactor. Fred told this woman that she “was nuts!” She responded with asking Fred to check out the other Lincoln impersonations out there, which he did.
“They were terrible!” he told me. “I knew as much as they did at the time!” And he knew he could do a better job then they were doing. You see, Fred began working at Greenfield Village in 1987 – his very first summer there he was portraying Samuel Daggett at the Daggett Farmhouse, and he did a speech to the visitors about the Articles of Confederation, the first governing constitution of the United States. This enabled Fred to learn how to role play, and he continued this type of role-playing at the Lincoln Courthouse and then back to the Eagle Tavern. It was this experience that helped him step into 1st person as a character in history. It taught him to ad lib and, with help from his teaching profession, gave him the skills needed to speak to people of all kinds. This was all a great experience that helped him to eventually do his Lincoln impression of which he does so well today.

President Lincoln gives a speech at Eastpointe's Erin-Halfway Days Festival.
~Note the two Union guards~

The woman who ‘discovered’ him was Trish Moss, a long-time reenactor from the 7th Michigan who is better known today as Mrs. Blair, Civil War era Michigan Governor Blair’s wife. Trish invited Fred and Bonnie to her home where she guided Fred in his venture to portray President Lincoln. It was at this visit that Bonnie, who had little interest in this sort of thing before hand, tried on a period dress for the first time and liked it. On their drive home, it was discussed and decided that Bonnie would portray Mary Todd Lincoln, and the two became a team.
Their first event as the Lincolns was in the spring of ’96 – they only did two events that year. But, it grew from there and now he is busy nearly every day of the year, portraying his hero, with Bonnie joining him on many of these excursions.
I asked Fred what his consistent favorite event as Lincoln is and he replied with, “A River of Time in Bay City, Michigan ( It is a unique time line, from the fur traders through the Vietnam era and everything in between. There is lots of educational activities and I get to recite the Gettysburg Address daily.”
“The setting for this event is beautiful,” he added. “It’s in a riverside park and there is a cook that prepares period correct meals from scratch – just like they used to - on an old wood stove in an 1870’s kitchen.”
His worst event ever was when he was asked to come as Lincoln to a Victorian Festival in one of Detroit's suburbs and, upon arriving, was told to walk up and down the street making speeches into a microphone and carrying a small hand-held speaker, all the while wearing a sandwich board that advertised his sponsor! I think this would be a worst event ever for anyone! Of course, he refused to do such a thing, considering it not only a dishonor to himself, but to President Lincoln as well. They realized how ridiculous this was and found a small stage where he could perform and give honor to the one he emulates.
Fred has had many experiences portraying our 16th president, and I asked him about the unusual questions he has received from audience members. Hands down, the most asked question from children is “Is your beard real?” followed by “Did it hurt when you got shot?”
For adults, the most asked question, or rather, statement, he receives is “I thought you were taller.” Fred’s response? “When the war began, I was 6’4”, but the burden of it shrunk me some!”

An audience enjoys hearing Lincoln recite the "Gettysburg Address"

And, because his beard is real, he is asked quite often, "Did you know you look like Abraham Lincoln?" when he is his 'modern self.'
I have been to many events with the Priebe's and have witnessed both in action. My favorite, I might add, was at a debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. This reenactment took place during the Democrat primary season in the early spring of 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Obama were running neck and neck for the Democratic nomination. A member of the audience posed a question during the question & answer period after the debate had ended: "What do you think of having a woman or a black man running for president?" To which Priebe, as Mr. Lincoln - and without missing a beat - replied, "Not in my lifetime!"
The audience roared with laughter!

Fred will continue his portrayal as President Lincoln as long as he can do it and still look the part. He and his wife participate in debates, reenactments, living history timelines, festivals, school functions and assemblies, and wherever else they can respectfully teach the public - young and old - about who so many consider to be our greatest president.

Kids at Woodland Elementary School in Eastpointe, Michigan, were truly in awe, some believing they had met the real President Lincoln!

Fred and Bonnie enjoy it immensely and it shows. We, in the Michigan reenacting/living history community, are lucky to have them.
Mr. Priebe leaves us with these parting words:
“Strive to do what is right and stay away from what is evil, and then you will be a good citizen and a good model for your children. And, as the real Mr. Lincoln said when he was given a bible from a group of appreciative African Americans: ‘Everything you know about living can be found in this book. It is the greatest gift God gave to man.’ ”
Thank you very much Fred for this interview. I look forward to future events with you and Bonnie.

If you would like to have the Priebe's attend your event, they can be reached through their web site:

(By the way, I have written about Mr. Priebe in a past blog: The Last Mourner for Lincoln)

No comments: