Founding fathers spend the day in Lenoir

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 04:22 PM

A guest walked the grounds of Fort Defiance in Lenoir on Saturday, stopping to address a man in a loose linen shirt and a wool waistcoat and breeches.

“Well, Mr. Franklin,” he said. “I see you’re keeping well.”

It was Barry Stevens who answered him. “I am keeping well,” Stevens said. “I’m keeping fit.”

Stevens is a Benjamin Franklin impersonator. He came to Fort Defiance this weekend with his colleague, Thomas Pitz, who portrays Thomas Jefferson.

At Fort Defiance – the historic home of Revolutionary War hero William Lenoir, who lent his name to Caldwell County’s seat – Stevens brought along traditional 18th-century games for the kids in attendance. Stevens worked on his recreation of Franklin’s famous kite experiment. Both spent much of the day answering questions.

For Stevens, this all started almost a decade ago, when he was a Revolutionary War reenactor. When he wore his traditional garb, people insisted on approaching him and saying, “Hi, Ben.”

He wasn’t supposed to be Ben Franklin, but he decided to give in.

Stevens started reading about Franklin, trying to see through the fog of history to the extraordinary man beneath. These days, nine years into his impersonation of the founding father, Benjamin Franklin feels like an old friend.

“The man’s a fascinating person,” Stevens said. “If you have to be someone, you might as well be someone fascinating.”

Pitz, on the other hand, is a Thomas Jefferson impersonator partly because he lives in Orange, Va. That town is the home of Montpelier, the home of President James Madison.

One summer, Fitz agreed to portray Jefferson for a program at Montpelier. Someone who saw him there asked him to do the reenactment again, and it tumbled along from there.

Pitz said he’s enjoyed portraying one of history’s more complex characters – Jefferson, who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson, the slave owner and champion of Native American removal.

About a half of any given audience barely knows who Jefferson is, Pitz said. Another quarter reveres him. The final quarter despises him, enough to start a verbal fight with an impersonator.

That’s not a bad summary of what history really is, Pitz explained. Playing Jefferson, he said, has given him an intense appreciation for the “amazing successes and abject failures” of the founding fathers, and the nation that sprung from their pens.

“History is an odd thing,” Pitz said. “Those on the other end of the historical spectrum, we can look back and judge. But they didn’t know what was going to happen, so how can we look back and judge them on their failures?”

The job of a historical impersonator is not rewarding in the most traditional ways, both men agreed. It’s not a money-maker – in fact, Stevens said, he puts plenty of his own money into keeping his props and costumes up to date. And you’re not always playing to huge crowds.

But they both have stories about the times that made it worth it.

For Pitz, that’s a story about a presentation he gave at the University of Virginia, talking to pre-law students about the Bill of Rights – all from Jefferson’s perspective.

One student came in with an attitude.

“His face said, What am I doing? What is this crackpot here doing this?” Pitz said.

Pitz saw that face change gradually throughout the course of the presentation, then later, he read the student’s evaluation.

“I wasn’t sure when I came in,” the student had written. “But by the time it was over, I thought it was 1807.”

That’s what Pitz and Stevens care about.

“To be able to convey that step back in time is always kind of the brass ring,” Pitz said. “I don’t always get there, but I’m always trying.”