The man with the plan

My lunch with Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe

EVER WONDERED how Heinz 57 steak sauce got its name?

“In my day, Heinz made pickles,” Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe told me. “The 57 referred to the number of varieties of pickles they made.”

It’s tidbits like this that make a person believe they really are speaking with the founder of the Georgia colony. Historian Scott Hodges of Darien brings Oglethorpe to life so successfully that he’s able to make his living as a professional re-enactor.

Hodges will bring Oglethorpe back to Savannah on Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Georgia Historical Society for An Evening with James Edward Oglethorpe. An extensive display of English trade items and maps will accompany the program, which is suitable for all ages. The presentation is part of the 2008 Georgia Days Celebration.

Hodges’ interest in becoming a re-enactor was piqued in 1975. “I always had a flair for acting. To bring a historical character to life is what I wanted to do.”

He started working for the state and played Capt. John Barker, who was sent to the new world in late 1721, at the Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simon’s Island. “They asked if I could do Oglethorpe, and I said I could try,” Hodges says. “I’ve been doing it for eight or nine years.”

Hodges spent four months on the set of the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot. “I did all the medical scenes,” he says. “I also was on the lines for some of the battle shots.”

Next year, Hodges will begin doing a program that covers America’s early colonial period, from the arrival of Columbus to the Lost Colony of Virginia. He reads diaries, journals and countless books while doing his research.

Attention is paid to every detail. For example, the gold trim on Oglethorpe’s uniform is really gold, which Hodges buys out of his own pocket. “I’m getting a new uniform that screams, ‘Oglethorpe thinks he’s somebody,’” Hodges jokes.

Many people have commented on Hodges’ facial resemblance to Oglethorpe, but he doesn’t see it. “His nose was much longer,” he says.

The accent he uses during re-enactments has fooled a lot of people, including Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society. “I thought he was from England,” Groce says.

Hodges remembers one time when he was working at Fort King George in Darien. “We had an Elderhostel group from England,” he says. “One woman asked, ‘What part of England do you come from?’

“I told her truthfully that my family came from York, I just didn’t say it was in 1630,” Hodges says. “She said, ‘I thought so! You sound just like my uncle. But I can tell you’ve been in the U.S. a while because sometimes your voice goes flat.’”

Hodges says the children at the schools he visits keep him inspired. “I wish someone had done something like this for us,” he says. “When I was in school, they didn’t teach history like this. History came from a book.”

An interview with Gen. Oglethorpe

I understand you’re in some trouble with the trustees of the colony because you can’t balance the books. Also, you gave land to the Jewish refugees, even though the trustees said you couldn’t. Who’s in charge here, you or the trustees?

Gen. Oglethorpe: The man I left in charge of the store died. A year’s worth of records disappeared. The trustees were ready to chew me up and spit me out. I requested an audience with the queen. I made a gift to her of Georgia silk and she had a dress made of it for the king’s birthday. The trustees have been humbled, whether they like it or not. Any time I get in trouble, I get out. I’m the only trustee in America. I should be able to make decisions on my own, although the trustees don’t agree.

Is it true your family were considered traitors in England?

Gen. Oglethorpe: My parents sided with the Jacobites and had to move away.

Is that why you came to Georgia? If not, why did you come?

Gen. Oglethorpe: I invested 20,000 pounds of my own money in the Georgia experiment. That would be millions in your world today. The trustees had gotten some people to come over but hadn’t yet picked a leader. My mother died, which freed me to leave England. Not only am I protecting my investment, I can lead the people.

Your compassion for people in debtors’ prison is well known. Has the decision to bring the “working poor” to Georgia proven successful?

Gen. Oglethorpe: The idea to clear out the debtors’ prisons was a noble idea, but it didn’t wash. By the time we set sail, less than two percent of the original colonists were from debtors’ prison.

The trustees hand-picked the first 40 families. That’s not saying people from the debtors’ prisons couldn’t pass, but in order to pass, they had to go before the trustees and explain what they were in trouble for and prove the person they were in debt to was willing to let them go. The trustees didn’t have the money to pay their debts. Most of the colonists are indentured servants or on the fringe of going into debtors’ prison.

From what I hear, they’re going to have to be fairly sturdy. There’s a big difference in the climates in England and Georgia. The first six months in a new place are called the “seasoning.” The best time to come is in winter and then ease into summer.

What was life like on the good ship Anne that brought you and the original colonists?

Gen. Oglethorpe: We passed the time teaching everyone how to load and fire a musket. A lot of those people had never held a musket before. We taught everyone over 16, girls as well as boys. We also taught everyone how to fire the cannons, even the women. If the Spaniards attack, and eventually they will, and the men are out fighting, the women will be expected to man the cannons.

Why are you so opposed to slavery?

Gen. Oglethorpe: If I was forced to work, I think I would run away. Every man’s real desire is to be free, to make a life where it has failed before.

If slaves ran away from Georgia, they couldn’t go north to South Carolina. They would be captured and sent back to their masters. What’s going to happen when they’re taken back to their masters, I cannot imagine.

If they run south, they’ll go to the Spaniards. They will draw pictures for the Spaniards to show where our defenses are, where the cannons are.

You 18th century bluebloods wear a lot of clothes.

Gen. Oglethorpe: I wear a wig and dress clothing, no matter how hot it is. There are three layers of wool and two layers of linen. I always make sure to shave very well, because that is the mark of a real gentleman, especially in the 18th century. The only time I don’t wear a wig is when I’m in my private quarters.

I understand one of your own soldiers took a shot at you after you donated your men’s pay to an old soldier’s home in England. Is that true?

Gen. Oglethorpe: The ball passed so close as to pass through my periwig.

An Evening with James Edward Oglethorpe is Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Georgia Historical Society, 501 Whitaker St. A reception follows

The program is free and open to the public as part of the 2008 Georgia Days Celebration. For information, call 651-2125 or visit