We Made History troop
November 2nd, 2012
12:32 PM ET

In the company of (dead) presidents

While the mock Civil War troops camped outside the grand porch of a large house in Mentor, Ohio, on a chilly February day, a bearded man captured their attention.

"The president's here!" said the captain, as the figure of James A. Garfield made an impromptu check of the soldiers. The next day the story of the chance inspection was in the paper, and the dignified gentleman's telephone was ringing off the hook.

Thus began Ed Haney’s journey as a presidential re-enactor. It was quite fortuitous he grew that beard.

Haney has been portraying President Garfield for 25 years now. He is a living historian, and began his presidential journey as a favor to the curator of the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the museum housed in the preserved home of the 20th US president. He studied up on the president, grew a beard, rented a costume and portrayed the assassinated leader for a fundraiser organized to help fix up the house Garfield lived in from 1876-1881.

Living historians are "dedicated to the preservation of history through correct presentations of life and the preservation of our country's landmarks, cemeteries, and battlefields," according to the National Society of Living Historians. They often participate in Revolutionary and Civil War reenactments or work in living museums such as Old Fort Niagara in New York or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Haney's fateful turn as Garfield developed into an interest he couldn't shake. "The more I started reading about him, the more I was fascinated by him," he said. Newly retired, Haney joined the museum in a more substantial way as a tour guide (in the guise of Garfield) and began collecting Garfield memorabilia. (His spare room is filled with Garfield mementos, including a 38-star US flag, the type that flew while Garfield was in office.)

Haney's enthusiasm for Garfield ultimately led him away from the museum to organize a troupe of like-minded re-enactors that call themselves We Made History.

Being a living historian can be a hobby or a career: Haney and his friends work as independent contractors, scheduling educational appearances at museums, schools and civic clubs. They earn money for their portrayals, but don't depend on their fees to make a living. While some living historians choose to recreate a persona based on their own personal family history or invent a character from the past, Haney's group chose very specific and recognizable figures from American history to bring to life.

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