Carl Closs, who will portray George Washington on Sunday, schmoozing with visitors, on the second day of the 52nd annual Chadds Ford Days, remembers a time when he thought that the father of our country was a cold fish.
From 1983 to 1997, Closs portrayed soldiers on both sides in Revolutionary War reenactments. He was a big Thomas Jefferson fan.
“I wasn’t interested in George Washington,” said Closs, 74. “I thought he was like the Washington Monument, kind of cold, aloof, standoffish. But the more I studied and got to know Tom Jefferson, the less I liked him as a person.”
When Closs came across Jefferson’s opinion of Washington as “a wise, a good, and a great man,” he said, “now I’m thinking, here’s Tom Jefferson, who was the original backstabber, talking well of George Washington.”
Closs said his epiphany came as he joined much of the nation in witnessing history on Jan. 26, 1998. “I was watching Bill Clinton point his finger at me on television and tell me he didn’t have sex with that woman,” Closs said. “That’s when I decided to quit work and portray George Washington full time.”
Following Sunday’s noon and 2 p.m. meet-and-greets at Chadds Ford Days, Closs will again appear as America’s first president at Brandywine Battlefield Park on Monday. He will read Washington’s letter to the First Continental Congress at a joint memorial service for those who died in the Battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777, and those who died in the terrorist attacks on the same date in 2001.
Then, Closs will portray Washington at the Battle of Brandywine reenactment on Sept. 16 and 17 at Sandy Hollow Battlefield in Birmingham Township, Chester County.
Closs, who lives in Kennett Square, channels Washington so convincingly that he has been hired to officiate at weddings, often at the Philander Chase Knox Estate, near Washington’s encampment in Valley Forge National Historical Park.
“I’m not qualified at all,” Closs said, chuckling. “I’m not a minister. But you don’t have to be. I checked. Anyone can marry anyone as long as you have two witnesses. In Pennsylvania, a grapefruit can officiate at a wedding.”
Noah Lewis, an Upper Darby reenactor who portrays Ned Hector, a Revolutionary War hero who was African American, said Closs, acting in the spirit of Washington, is a wise and good man who mentored him in the art of bringing a historical figure to life.
“I met him at my first reenactment, and I was scared,” Lewis said. “It was the Battle of Brandywine, and I was wearing a horrible outfit, blue hospital scrubs with white socks pulled over the top of them. Reenactors were coming up to me and saying, ‘Well, everybody’s got to start somewhere.’ Mr. Closs took me under his wing. That whole battle, I just followed him around like a puppy. He was just so kind to me.”
Twenty years later, Lewis’ historical presentation is now as polished as his custom-made Ned Hector clothing. He will be available for meet-and-greets at noon and 2 p.m. Saturday. He said he was startled when his black history research uncovered Hector’s story.
“My opinion used to be that all people of color back then were slaves, all were poor, and if they were in the military, they were manual laborers,” Lewis said. “Ned Hector was none of that. He was a soldier in an elite artillery unit who fought in the Battle of Brandywine and the Battle of Germantown.”
Hector was so highly regarded in Conshohocken, where he lived, that years after he died in 1834 at the age of 90, the community named Hector Street after him. Lewis pointed out that the commemorative plaque reads, “He is symbolic of the many unknown black soldiers who served in the American Revolution, but whose race is not mentioned in muster rolls.”
When he portrays Hector, Lewis tells his listeners that Hector’s personal history represents thousands of unsung African American soldiers who helped win the Revolutionary War.
“Our country’s greatest asset has always been our diversity,” Lewis said. “We helped each other when we really needed each other. That’s what my portraying Ned Hector is all about.”
Besides the one-on-ones with Washington and Hector, Chadds Ford Days, on the grounds of the Chadds Ford Historical Society, 1736 North Creek Rd., features 1 p.m. both days skirmishes with cannons firing, mounted dragoons at 4 p.m. Saturday, and, from 10 a.m. to dusk both days, food, a beer garden, a crafts fair, hayrides, and bands. General admission: $10. Children under 17: free.