Sunday, May 2, 2021

Historic Interpreters: Meeting My American History Heroes

Let's go back in time. 
Not too far back,  mind you - - only around 45 years or so.
It's 1976 and the teenage me is at a school assembly.  The person presenting on the stage dressed in a suit and tie is speaking in a drab mono-toned voice.  And he's droning on about ...*yawn*... history ...and ...well... that gym floor certainly looks...comfortable...mmm.....
Yeah - - that's generally the way most presentations and assemblies were like for me when I was in school.  Even if they were about history.
How different it is for students today,  for they can watch the past come to life before their eyes through historical interpretation.  The presenters not only come out in clothing of the time,  but often may have  "hands-on"  artifacts to pass around,  speak in 1st person,  and might also include a question-and-answer session.
I've always greatly admired those living historians who  "transform"  themselves into a historic person;  when done correctly,  it can be an extraordinary experience.   Yes,  a good presenter can make all the difference in the world of historical presentation,  allowing one to  "meet"  those only read about.
And for the past twenty years or so I have been lucky enough to have seen and even befriend a few living history interpreters.
Me and Abraham Lincoln,  our 16th President.
For instance,  the first person who I met and then befriended in this genre was Fred Priebe,  a man that has spent decades portraying Abraham Lincoln.  Now,  there are men I have seen at reenactments who have the Lincoln beard and may have a similar look as the great emancipator,  but when Fred Priebe dons his 1860s clothing,  he becomes  our 16th President;  he remains in the moment and true to his representation as long as the 1860s fashions remain on him.  And Fred's knowledge of Lincoln is beyond compare  (you should see his personal library!),  and he takes this role seriously,  as he should,  for it is a serious role to take.  
There is a lot to be said about that.  As a historical interpreter,  it can sometimes be difficult to stay focused on the time,  place,  and person you become for any great length of time without becoming a modern caricature.  But Fred?  No...Fred's not here.  But Mr.  Lincoln is.
Now,  I will bet you are wondering how Mr.  Priebe got started in this interesting vocation.
Let’s jump up to the fall of 1995.  Fred,  already a veteran employee at the open-air museum of Greenfield Village,  was working at the The Eagle Tavern,  a restaurant representing the year 1850 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 struck up a conversation and told him that,  with his beard he looked like Abraham Lincoln and should portray the 16th president as a reenactor.  Fred laughingly 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 – at his very first summer there he portrayed 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/Logan County 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 interpretation of which he has done so well. 
How good is he?
Fred Priebe/Abraham Lincoln
Well,  here is a true story that I love to tell  (and Fred loves to hear!):
My daughter,  Rosalia,  at her current age of 20  (as of this year of 2021),  has been involved in living history most of her life - since she was three years old.  She doesn't remember not reenacting.  
So it was at the old Jackson,  Michigan Civil War Muster event,  which,  at that time was Michigan's largest,  when Rosalia was just 5 years old,  and she and her little friend,  Elizabeth,  were watching the contra dancing at the ball.  In fact,  as young as they were,  they themselves danced the reels and knew the steps well.  They were lucky enough to dance a bit with none other than Abraham Lincoln himself,  of which my daughter told me afterward,  "President Lincoln told me and Elizabeth that we were the prettiest girls at the ball!"
That made her night!
Fred,  as Mr.  Lincoln,  was present at numerous other events that we participated in before the end of that year's season,  so my daughter was able to visit with him a few more times before winter hit.
There was a documentary on the History Channel  (back in the days when The History Channel showed real history),  and it just so happened that it was about President Lincoln,  and it explained how John Wilkes Booth sneaked up behind the 16th President on that fateful night in April and,  well,  changed history.
As we were watching this,  I glanced at Rosalia and noticed a tear running down her cheek.  I asked her what was wrong,  and in her tiny 5 year old voice,  she cried,  "I didn't know Mr.  Lincoln died!"  And burst into tears!
And then it hit me - she never differentiated the reenactor Lincoln with the real president Lincoln!  To her,  they were one and the same!
I gave her a hug and explained that the Lincoln she knew was just pretending,  just like we pretended to live during the Civil War and that the actual President Lincoln died 140 years earlier - "way before even grandma was born!"  I told her that the Lincoln she knew was very much alive and that she would see him at the next reenactment.
It took a few moments for it too sink in,  but once it did she brightened up,  but still not 100% convinced.
Believe me when I say that at the very next reenactment,  she made sure Mr. Priebe - I mean,  Mr.  Lincoln - was there!
Of course,  Fred was touched when I told him this story,  and it has become a favorite of ours to tell at gatherings.
How neat that my little girl truly felt the pain of losing President Lincoln here in the 21st century like none of us will ever experience!
That's  how good Fred is.
That's how good any historical interpreter should be.

So,  it was on an April day in 2017 that my friend Bob Stark and myself were strolling through historic Greenfield Village,  both of us dressed in our 18th century clothing,  and a younger gentleman,  I would say in his early-to-mid-30s,  walked up to Bob,  arm outstretched for a handshake,  and stated,  "Thank you,  Dr.  Franklin,  for all you've done for our country."
Bob was taken a-back.  He had not experienced this before outside of a reenactment...but dressed the way he was - and being in the midst of historic homes from America's past - there was absolutely no denying who he was representing.
Ladies & Gentlemen,  may I introduce you to Benjamin Franklin.
I met Mr.  Stark the first time I participated at the Colonial Kensington reenactment back in 2014.  Upon seeing him under the pavilion preparing to give a talk,  I immediately knew who he was,  for the look was undeniable:  here before me was none other than Dr.  Benjamin Franklin. 
He enthralled us all with his many personal tales of his experiments,  including the one with electricity,  as well as his thoughts on the politics of the day.  Plus he was a genuinely nice man who taught me a few rules of colonial etiquette that I was not familiar with. 
Bob really does the  "original"  proud;  like Fred Priebe,  he and I have become great friends outside of reenacting,  and we have had many conversations about this  (arguably)  most popular of the Founding Fathers.  Any questions on Dr.  Franklin I may have,   he answers fully and completely to where a greater understanding of the man allows you to feel as if you were in the presence of America's Greatest Citizen himself.
It is I with Dr.  Franklin
Bob told me that his love for history runs deep,  going all the way back to his schooldays.  That love was enhanced upon a high school trip to Gettysburg.  
As far as interpreting as Benjamin Franklin,  he began reenacting back in 2005 and portrayed a medical pastor to the troops,  which was where he  "met"  other Founding Fathers.  
It was in 2009,  as he was setting up his tent with a friend while in Port Huron when his friend mentioned repeatedly that Bob looked like Ben Franklin.  He told him he had the hair,  the facial expressions,  the eye glasses,  and,  um,  the belly.  But Bob felt that,  though he knew quite a bit about the founding father,  he didn't know enough.  Well,  this friend made a bet that he couldn't walk more than five minutes in his period clothing without being called out as Franklin.  Bob took that bet and put on his 1770s finest and went a-walking around the reenactment site.  It wasn't but two minutes into this walk that a young elementary=aged girl shouted to her father,  "Daddy Daddy!  Look!  It's Ben Franklin!"
Bob lost the bet,  which happened to be paying for a dinner at a local Port Huron restaurant  (The Golden Coral).
It was also that weekend that a woman from Ohio also noticed the uncanny resemblance of Bob and Ben and asked him if he would be willing to present at her school district for Constitution Day.  He accepted and the rest,  as they say,  is history.
There is a bit more on Bob/Ben coming up shortly - - but first:

I also got to meet Thomas Jefferson
Now,  I have heard much talk about the interpreters of the Founding Fathers at Colonial Williamsburg.  When I visited the great 18th century city in 2016,  it was a top priority for me to see some of the historic people of our nation's past,  one of who just happened to be the  "elder"  Thomas Jefferson,  as portrayed by the great Bill Barker.  I say  "elder"  because the representation our 3rd President was as an elderly gentleman from right around the year 1810,  and his speech was a sort of retrospect of his life and of the important influences and events that occurred for him.
Mr.  Barker was amazing.  He spoke with a southern gentleman's accent and casually used period slang,  verbiage,  &  humor to give the audience a sense of realism,  to give the impression we were actually listening to the Thomas Jefferson of  200 years ago.
Like Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin,  "portraying Thomas Jefferson – in all his genius and complexity – is a daunting challenge,  yet Bill Barker has succeeded where some of Hollywood’s finest have failed" - this according to Monticello President Leslie Greene Bowman.  “Bill’s knowledge,  experience,  and passion for his subject are unparalleled."
Yes,  Mr.  Barker,  who began interpreting Jefferson in 1984—fittingly,  at Independence Hall in Philadelphia - has moved on from Colonial Williamsburg to the actual home of Thomas Jefferson,  Monticello.
But it was at Colonial Williamsburg where I got to meet him and hear him speak.


Patrick Henry:  'twas an honor.
While in Colonial Williamsburg,  I made it a point to see the historic interpreters presenting as our Founding Fathers as time and days permitted.  Now,  there are over a dozen of these  "Nation Builders"  (as Williamsburg calls them),  so considering that my stay there was for less than a week,  I could not be in the audience to see each one - I was at the mercy of their schedule.
But those who I did see were remarkable in that their knowledge of who they were portraying was mind-boggling - again,  they became the Founder through 1st person interpretation and were able to easily answer whatever question came their way with comfort and accuracy.  I believe what impressed me the most was their willingness to even take questions from the audience.
The day after meeting Thomas Jefferson,  I happened to find myself in the company of Patrick Henry,  who,  in March 1775,  urged his fellow Virginians to arm in self-defense,  closing his appeal with the immortal words:  "I know not what course others may take;  but as for me,  give me liberty or give me death."
Amazing...first Thomas Jefferson and now Patrick Henry.
Which of our Founding Fathers will I meet next? 


And then there was General Washington!
Still in Williamsburg,  it was time to become acquainted with Colonel George Washington.
We're used to seeing George Washington as he is pictured on the one dollar bill:  old and stiff with powdered wig/hair.  But the George Washington I witnessed was a younger man speaking to us from the month of March 1775,  before Lexington & Concord - a man who was still hopeful that the more  "moderate heads on both sides of the Atlantic would calm the political waters and protect American rights"  so that he  (and Martha)  could concentrate on family life at Mount Vernon,  their northern Virginia estate.
During the time he took questions from the 2016 audience,  one fellow asked him what he thought about Independence for our country.  Of course,  if you know anything about our nation's history you'll know that declaring Independence in early 1775 was not what the citizens wanted,  nor was it sought after.  Colonel Washington responded in a controlled manner and stated something along the lines of,  "Sir,  you speak treason;  you could be hung for suggesting such a treasonous act as Independence!  No,  sir,  we do not want to break off from the Crown - we only want a say in matters that concern us."
You see,  it was fifteen months after the beginning of hostilities in April 1775 that the Second Continental Congress proclaimed American independence  (of course,  on July 4,  1776).  Before 1775 the patriots generally desired to remain within the British Empire.  As the war went on,  however,  the majority of them became convinced that their happiness was better assured outside the empire. 


Well,  now I have begun historical Paul Revere.  However,  I did not start out on this venture as this most famous of curriers with that intent.  
My  "becoming"  Paul Revere began slowly...years before with my partner-in history,  Larissa,  when she & I presented as historical farmers - showing everyday life on the farm - first at reenactments,  then for schools,  and then for historical societies,  libraries,  fairs,  and wherever else we are asked,  and we do our best to make it anything but drab and boring!  No suit and tie on me;  Larissa and I dress in accurate 18th & 19th century clothing when we present,  for we do both colonial and Victorian.  We also bring replica period-accessories and try to convey the excitement that history has to offer in our little expositions.  
Victorian Farmers Ken & Larissa
Our presentations began slowly,  centering on the 1860s period,  and we initially spoke about our clothing with everyday life and etiquette thrown in.  Since Larissa has worked for years at the historic farms at Greenfield Village,  she was well-versed on the women's roles for both Victorian and colonial periods.
Being that I am descended from farmers,  dating back centuries in America,  England,  and Sicily,  I took an interest in the farming life and began researching the practice out of sheer interest as well as pride for my ancestors.
When we first began this presentation,  we spoke on the roles of the husband and wife and of our chores both inside and outside of the home,  and then we expanded it to include the roles of children as well.  We eventually tweaked and formulated this topic and created a family scenario to bring more life to the presentation.
We were a great success.
It was a no-brainer,  then,  for us to add another period in time to our farming presentations:
Meet colonial farmers Ken & Larissa
As my main interest in American history has always been the colonial/Revolutionary War period,  and since Larissa has worked at the 1760 Daggett Farm for nearly two decades,  it was a natural segue for the two of us to find ourselves in the 18th century.
Since I was already presenting in colonial attire,  it was a hop,  skip,  and a jump to find myself as Paul Revere,  who I have admired since I was a child.  I gave my Revere interpretation a sort of trial run at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Plymouth,  Michigan,  and it went surprisingly well.
Of course,  since my first talk was a short one,  I only gave the basic information about Paul Revere's famous ride on the night of April 18,  1775.  But I was able to expand it a little at a time,  which I still do. 
And Larissa decided to take on Sybil Ludington,  who is known as the  "female Paul Revere."  As Patriots to the American cause,  we are able to tell the stories of these two messengers during the time of the Revolutionary War in an engaging way.
Paul Revere speaks to 21st century school kids and tells the real story of the
midnight ride that occurred on April 18,  1775.

Sybil Ludington also speaks to 21st century kids to tell her very interesting
and daring story.
It didn't take the two of us very long to realize that Benjamin Franklin would be a wonderful addition to our Patriot presentation,  so we asked Bob Stark if he might be interested in joining us.
We are very glad he accepted our offer.
The Patriots Benjamin Franklin,  Sybil Ludington,  and Paul Revere~
Yes,  just like for our farming presentation,  as Patriots we bring along accessories,  including the kite Franklin flew during a thunderstorm,  historic flags,  the lantern shewn in the Old North Church steeple,  and other objects of American history.

Larissa and I have been presenting together for about a decade now,  and Bob has been with us as a Patriot for about five years.  Unfortunately for this year,  with the pandemic fear,  we've only had one presentation - Colonial Farm - at a local Montessori school.
Our one and only presentation so far since February 2020 - it felt great and,  dare I say,  almost normal to be out again.
Oh!  I hope there is more to come!
And do the kids respond favorably?
You betcha!
Oh,  there are those who will be perpetually bored.  But it's usually because they don't want to be in school anyhow.  The majority,  however,  really seem to enjoy it.
And,  as a bonus,  the kids will learn American history!
And,  hopefully,  we'll also instill a bit of much needed patriotism.
The Old North Church Lantern
A bicentennial replica from 1975 - 
200 years after the historic ride.
After admiring Fred Priebe,  Bob Stark, and the interpreters from Colonial Williamsburg,  I never imagined that I would one day be in the same category myself.
Please understand,  I,  in no way,  consider myself to be on their level,  but they have helped me hone my own skills through their encouragement or through the way they present.
I am reaching for their level...
I have to admit that the aforementioned men definitely look like the great men of history they portray - I mean,  just look at is very easy to spot who they are.
Fortunately for Larissa,  no one alive today really knows what Sybil Ludington actually looked like,  so she is fine in her presentation.
However,  I do not look very much at all like the actual Paul Revere,  but knowing that most people would not recognize an image of the man if they saw one does benefit me.  It's for this reason I accent my knowledge of Revere and try even harder to have the public believe I am  this patriot,  whether they know of his physical features or not,  and I want to make sure I am presenting it all correctly - to make my interpretation of the man believable and human.  I am happy to say that,  though the research and learning never end,  I feel I am at a point where I can comfortably  "put myself out there"  in this manner for presentations and at reenactments. 
But there's always room for improvement...
Now,  I do have my own Paul Revere story to tell:
It was during a Revolutionary War reenactment at Old Fort Wayne,  Indiana,  when I was told there were two youngsters who were quite fond of Paul Revere,  and since I was portraying the man,  they very much wanted to meet  "me,"  for,  in their minds,  I was  this midnight rider from April 18,  1775.
I asked them what did they know of my story,  of which they responded more correctly than most adults  (who almost always get it wrong,  I must say).  It was easy for me to see they did their research.  Real research that went far beyond a mostly wrong poem and Facebook memes.  I then filled in the rest of my story to give them a more accurate and complete portrayal of my most famous of rides.  They really seemed to enjoy hearing that from me and were excited to meet the man who was a part of the beginnings of the Revolutionary War.  I later learned Paul Revere was their hero.  
My biggest fans...
This meant so much to me,  and it was an honor for me to meet them,  for children who love history and are interested in the  past are the ones we must continue to encourage and to grow their enthusiasm so that their interest will continue to flourish.
This was a true highlight of my entire living history  "career,"  and I am so glad their father took this picture.
. does take time,  effort,  want,  research...but I've learned greatly from my friends Fred and Bob,  and by watching the men from Colonial Williamsburg.  But one never ceases to stop learning - one should never be satisfied.
A sort of timeline photo here - 1770 meets 1880. 
I wanted a picture of Fred Priebe and I on his last day working as
a presenter at Greenfield Village.
It was taken at the JR Jones General Store,  so Fred is not President Lincoln here,  
but perhaps JR Jones himself!


Until next time,  see you in time.

~   ~   ~


Olde Dame Holly said...

Oh, something I'd love as part of your Paul Revere presentation/living history would be to bring along a few silver items! Special items of the day, like a wick-trimmer or a candle snuffer or a spririts cup! Amazing post as always. I always come away uplifted from your posts. Love of country, love of the good parts of our history, love of olden lore and passion for life are hard to encounter these days, but I always find it here!

Historical Ken said...

Thank you so much Dame Holly!
Your comments uplift me!

Lady Locust said...

History is so intriguing and fun. I could never understand why I didn't like history in school until it dawned on me that half of it was not true or half-truths. Real history is fascinating.
And you certainly hang with a noble crowd :-)

Barbara Rogers said...

Great to see great men brought into today's experiences of meeting ordinary people...and sharing the expectations and emotions of history with us. These reenactors are wonderful to dedicate their time and talents to this pursuit! Thanks!