· Henry Hartford in Two Worlds ·
If you’ve heard of Talking Tombstones then you probably know that real people, now deceased, have their stories brought to life in an abbreviated forum.
In Hutchinson, Reno County, Kansas, contemporary actors, often affiliated with Stage 9 (run by the Hutchinson Theater Guild), transform into dearly departed residents from a distant era. Thanks to Talking Tombstones, the attendees who visit Hutchinson’s Eastside Cemetery each October, learn a great deal in a short time about local history. I can’t think of a better way to experience yesteryear!
I discovered Henry Hartford (1837-1919) about thirty-five years ago while doing historical research. This was during my early days as a deputy with the Reno County Sheriff’s Office.
I searched for all the former Reno County sheriffs and soon learned that Hartford was the county’s second elected sheriff (1874-1875), following Charles Collins. Hartford was consistently described as an Irish immigrant, a gallant and highly decorated Civil War Union veteran (“wounded five times seriously”), a natural leader of men, who filed and then settled in Medora Township under a Soldier’s Homestead claim (1872-73) where he became a successful rancher and cattleman.
When I learned that Henry Hartford was going to be one of Stage 9’s highlighted chosen people, I got excited! Who had done the historical research? Who wrote the script? And who would take on the persona of this courageous man?
Sometimes the Reno County Museum recommends potential characters from the past for Talking Tombstones, but the meticulous details are researched by Rita Lingg, former Reno County Genealogical Society member.
Lynsey Becher cast and directed Talking Tombstones and worked with all the actors exclusively.
This year, Jason Probst wrote five original scripts and rewrote one that had been used some years back. One of the scripts he wrote is a fast moving, personal dialogue between two long-gone friends and business partners, performed by Jordan Gajewski and Jackson Swearer.
When I asked Jason about the process he used in writing, he told me this: “It’s incredibly fascinating to me. And probably the most challenging part is figuring out what to include and what to leave out, so we capture the character’s essence, without creating a script that’s impossible for the characters to memorize.
“I had so much fun writing the characters!” Jason continued. “What’s most fun for me is seeing these characters come to life, which happened this week at dress rehearsal.”
When I learned that Denton Warn would transform himself into Henry Hartford, I recognized him as an illustrator of children’s books. He was quick to give credit to others. Denton hadn’t done the research or writing but he had rewritten Hartford’s story to his liking.
Denton said he was not with the Stage 9 association, he had done some theater in college, but no acting in between.
After I asked him about the Irish accent he would use, he responded like a new immigrant from the Emerald Isle. Where did he find this authentic accent? He credited Lynsey Becher as his excellent and pleasant drama coach, then added that he also listened to some online sites.
Here are some insights from Lynsey about assisting actors in their preparation:
- I worked with all on beat work, which is going through the monologue and finding the places where one story begins or the subject changes.
- We worked on the emotion behind everything that happened to these characters.
- There is a fine balance between just rattling off historical information and creating a character who is alive and relatable.
- It is important to keep this show as historically accurate as possible, but when you are portraying a real person and you only have bits and pieces of their life, there is a dramatic element of how the actor feels about what the character went through that has to come into play.
As I approached Henry Hartford’s cemetery plot on the twilight tour, I recognized Denton Warn. With a handsome white mustache and goatee, he was dressed in period costume. Sheriff Hartford was wearing a collarless, long-sleeved white shirt, buttoned vest, dress pants, and a melon-shaped derby hat. In case of trouble, he was holstered up.
During Hartford’s exceptional performance he welcomed everyone in a strong Irish accent and soon told a joke: “Why did the Irishman wear red suspenders?”
“To keep his pants up,” he answered.
The Civil War veteran told of signing up for only three months service since most everyone expected a short war. He shared about being in the thick of things during his many military campaigns and about receiving multiple wounds. I laughed when he said there wasn’t anything civil about the Civil War.
Hartford had settled in Reno County just in time to face the horrific results of the grasshopper invasion of 1874. “They even ate the laundry off the clothesline,” and while the chickens ate the hungry pests, this caused the chickens to taste so bad, people wouldn’t eat the chickens!
In the perfect setting, Henry introduced us to his family as he motioned to the various headstones. We learned that his future wife, Alice Elizabeth Thomas, was a Medora Township neighbor to Hartford. They married in 1879 and raised five children.
Henry Hartford’s closing remarks were brief and humorous.
“I’m always ready for a joke to everyone I meet. My time is up . . . again!” Hartford was done and his audience was appreciative, responding with thunderous applause.
Three days after Denton portrayed Henry Hartford, I had the pleasure of visiting with Lynne Hartford, great-granddaughter of Henry! It would have never happened without the publicity for Talking Tombstones.
Lynne sent me a photo of the old farmstead near Medora and photos of Henry in uniform.
Thanks to Stage 9, a group of dedicated, talented people, who consistently recreate another time and place so that we can learn to value who and where we are.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
History of Reno County, Kansas: Its People, Industries and Institutions (1917), by Sheridan Ploughe, p 200-203
Reno County Museum, Lynn Ledeboer, Curator