Sunday, October 17, 2021

My Tribute to Fred Priebe: Becoming President Lincoln - An Interview

It's been a while since my last posting.
I have been fighting a serious illness so I am moving a bit slower than normal.
I apologize...

 ~   ~

This is written in honor of my friend,  Fred Priebe,  who was,  perhaps,  one of the finest living historians I have had the pleasure to meet.  It was in April of 2020 that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and only given a probable short time to live.  Due to such a horrible diagnosis,  he retired as Abraham Lincoln.
I am heartbroken to say that Fred passed away on October 3,  2021.  
This is how I noted it on my Facebook page:
Fred Priebe - 2017
Last day working at Greenfield Village
at the JR Jones General Store

It saddens me to announce that our own President Lincoln - Fred Priebe - had passed away this morning after putting up a grand fight against pancreatic cancer.
He portrayed Abraham Lincoln for over two decades,  and he did our 16th president with true grace and honor.  When he put on his Lincoln clothes,  he became Lincoln.  He took that position seriously and gained high respect from those within the reenacting community.
Fred was also a 25 year employee at Greenfield Village,  and could be seen,  at one time or another,  at the Daggett House,  The Logan County Courthouse,  The Eagle Tavern,  Grimm Jewelry Store,  and the JR Jones General Store.
I will miss my good friend - in fact, I am honored that I could call Fred my friend.

This blog post is my tribute to this finest of men - I wrote it originally years ago,  and have just very recently modified it a little...a slight revisioning for this week's posting - I hope you enjoy a bit of his history in portraying history:

President Lincoln and I

Through my travels in the reenacting/living history community I have met some wonderful people,  and Fred Priebe is probably one of the more fascinating that I have had the pleasure to befriend.  He and his late 1st wife have portrayed President and Mrs. Lincoln and,  I would venture to believe,  probably at times spent more time as the Lincoln's than as the Priebe's!
You see,  when one would meet Fred as our 16th President,  there was little doubt they felt as if they have truly come as close as one possibly could to meeting the actual President.  Fred got into a 1st person mode as soon as he got into his period 1860s clothing,  and will rarely step out of character.
He become  Abraham Lincoln.
It was about 12 years ago that I interviewed Fred,  for I was interested in learning how he got involved in his living history portrayal.  The words are mostly his and the stories came directly from the man himself.

Well it seems that back in the days when our country still actually celebrated Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays as separate holidays  (and not the all-encompassing 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.
Fred as Samuel Daggett -
way back when...
Let’s jump up to the fall of 1995.  Fred,  already a veteran employee at Greenfield Village open-air museum,  was working at the historic Eagle Tavern,  a restaurant depicting the year 1850 and served 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 as part of his presentation he would do 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 eventually 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 unknowing help from his teaching profession,  gave him the skills needed to speak to people of all kinds.  This all helped him to gain the experience needed to bring Lincoln to life.

The woman,  by the way,  who  ‘discovered’  him was Trish Moss,  a long-time reenactor who is known today as portraying the wife of Civil War-era Michigan Governor Austin Blair.  

Fred and Bonnie:
President & Mrs.  Lincoln
Trish invited Fred and his wife 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  1996 – they only did two events that year.  But,  it grew from there and they had presentations seemingly 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 was 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 myself,  but to President Lincoln as well."  They realized how ridiculous this was and found a small stage where Fred could speak and give honor to the one he emulates.
Fred speaking to Eastpointe school kids.
Oh!  He certainly kept their attention!
Over the years,  Fred 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!”

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 Barrack 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!
Great response!

Gettysburg Address
Fred had continued his portrayal as President Lincoln as long as he could do it.  He and Bonnie participated in debates,  reenactments,  living history timelines,  festivals,  school functions and assemblies,  and wherever else they could respectfully teach the public - young and old - about who so many consider to be our greatest president.  Bonnie had passed away a few years ago,  and since then Fred married his high school sweetheart,  Ginny,  a wonderful lady who gave him all the love and care he deserved as he fought the horrible cancer.

In my original posting,  Mr. Priebe left me 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. 

This is perhaps my most favorite photo of Fred,  taken at Port Sanilac.
I am proud to say I am the man behind the camera for this one.

So,  time marches on.
As someone wrote in the comment of my Facebook tribute:
"He now belongs to the ages."
The same quote given when the actual Abraham Lincoln passed away in 1865.
Fred deserves that quote just as much,  for he taught so many people,  especially children,  about such an important man in our great American history...and he was,  more importantly,  a Christian man who was not afraid to show it.  He lived the Christian life in his heart and soul,  all the while teaching of his historical passion as well.
Fred & new bride Ginny came over for a visit this past August.

A sort of timeline photo here, but I needed a picture of Fred and I on his last day
working as a presenter at Greenfield Village.

During our last conversation we ever had,  on the phone about eight days before he passed away,  he thanked me for teaching him about colonial life.
He  thanked  me!
Such an honor.
My friend...Fred Priebe.

Until next time,  see you in time.

~   ~   ~


Olde Dame Holly said...

Very sad about Mr. Priebe! I hope that you will continue to improve after your illness, also. These are perilous times.

The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...

Sigh, great tribute dear Ken, a sad loss.

Lady Locust said...

First, I hope you are feeling better by this time. Next, a very nice tribute. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend and for the wealth of knowledge shared with all. It seems so many of our people with true and valuable knowledge are passing. I'm not entirely sure how to process it for I fear the knowledge and skill isn't being picked up by younger generations and might parish with these good folks.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you so much for your kind comments.
Fred was a historian beyond nearly anyone I've met. He had taught me so much. And just a wonderful human being: God-fearing and faithful.
Your comments here mean a lot to me.
Thank you.