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Trevor Most, 5, inspects the underside of his chair while Benjamin Franklin impersonator Rich Davis tells his audience at Decatur Public Library that Franklin created the first public library in America.
DAILY Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Trevor Most, 5, inspects the underside of his chair while Benjamin Franklin impersonator Rich Davis tells his audience at Decatur Public Library that Franklin created the first public library in America.

A visit from Ben
Franklin impersonator gives Valley audiences a living history lesson

By Patrice Stewart
DAILY Staff Writer

pstewart@decaturdaily.com 340-2446

What was Ben Franklin's greatest contribution?

It depends on your age. "Inventing electricity" is what a child remembering Franklin's experiments shouted. An adult called out "bifocals."

All ages got a living history lesson from a 300-year-old when a Ben Franklin impersonator spent several days in the Tennessee Valley this week.

Rich Davis of Summerville, S.C., estimated he has presented about 3,000 programs as Franklin in 13 years of touring. Friends of the Library sponsored his program Tuesday night at Decatur Public Library, and he also appeared at several area schools.

Inventing electricity wasn't the answer he wanted, "but give him a hand anyway," said Davis. While Franklin invented the lightning rod, Davis discounted tales about Franklin flying a kite with a key to attract lightning. "We aren't sure he ever really did that, but rumors spread," he said.

But the best part of this program was "getting electrocuted," according to 10-year-old Hannah Hand, who was one of the children lining up to participate in Franklin experiments with electric shocks. While all the shocking was make-believe, it didn't take the children long to get the hang of jumping, hollering and falling on the floor on cue when "shocked."

Garrett Johnson, 10, said Franklin's electric shock experiments with friends who visited his home reminded him of the cattle prods used on their farm. Asked what he learned, another boy said, "I learned never to go to your house."

Davis told them Franklin's first invention was swimming paddles to wear on the hands for faster swimming, but he also invented the glass armonica and the Ben Franklin stove.

He also said Franklin helped his community by starting a club at age 21, as well as the first volunteer fire department. He also started a hospital for the sick and insane, founded the American Philosophical Society and started a small school that today is The University of Pennsylvania, although he only had two years of school himself.

Franklin made up for that with reading, which was his favorite hobby, said Davis, who believes his most important contribution was the creation in 1732 of the first library.

The former college English and public speaking instructor, who earned a Ph.D. from The University of Southern Mississippi, gave his library audience biographical information and challenged them to remember it; then he kept asking and checking their answers throughout his program. Library spokeswoman Patricia Slaten said she was surprised adults made up about 70 percent of the audience, "but maybe they read that he would help them to remember everything."

"I was born Jan. 17, 1706, and just celebrated a birthday; how old am I?" asked Davis, wearing a lace-trimmed burgundy and gold brocade waistcoat over a maroon vest and green knee breeches. A brimmed hat topped his straight gray hair, and he admitted he didn't like wearing the curly dress-up wig popular in Franklin's era.

Davis shared other information about Franklin's life:

He loved to read and his favorite book was "Pilgrim's Progress." He lived on Milk Street in Boston with his 16 brothers and sisters. At age 10 he went to work for his father, who sold soap and candles for a living. When he was 12, his father apprenticed him to his older brother, James, to learn to be a printer, but they had their disagreements, because Ben thought he was a better printer.

Franklin opened his own print shop in Philadelphia. "What did I print?" asked Davis, and children called out answers: books, newspapers and "Poor Richard's Almanac." They chimed in with the almanac's familiar sayings: "A penny saved is a penny earned," "Haste makes waste," "Time is money," "A stitch in time save nine" and "He who lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas."

"I also printed money — I made a lot of money printing money," said the Franklin impersonator. "My face is on one of your bills — which one?"

Ben Cooper, 8, quickly answered that Franklin is on the $100 bill. In fact, he knew so much about Franklin and answered so many questions that Davis told him, "I'm getting ready to retire; look me up. It's a pretty good job, but there's a lot of travel and the hours are terrible." Davis said he once stopped his characterization for a year of teaching in a classroom, "and then I was so glad to get back into this costume."

"I think Ben Franklin may be the best American who ever lived," said Davis. "He was a great businessman, scientist and inventor, and he made enough to retire at 42 and spend the rest of his years helping the community and country as a great diplomat and statesman." He credited Franklin with visiting France and getting them to come into the Revolutionary War on the side of the colonies, and noted that he signed four famous documents: Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, Treaty of Alliance with France and Treaty of Paris.

"I also had the first bathtub in this country, and I loved it so much I took it with me when I went to France," said the impersonator.

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