Before he began donning a Civil War uniform on the regular, O.J. Fargo found the nation’s bloodiest conflict “fairly boring.”
But after joining a local group of re-enactors, having grown up as the lone history lover among his family and friends, the Creston, Iowa, native said he rationalized “any port in a storm.”
“I got into it and my philosophy is, if you’re going to do something, do it right,” Fargo recalled.
Now, Fargo — a retired director of media services and social studies consultant for the Green Valley Area Education Agency — estimates he has done about 130 first-person Civil War presentations over the past 15 years, over a 25-year stretch as a re-enactor.
Fargo portrays Thomas Goodfellow, a real former member of the 4th Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry in the Union Army, whom he said used to live about 10 miles away from him, in Afton, Iowa.
His most recent outing was an interactive presentation Friday afternoon in North Liberty, where “Goodfellow” stopped by the city’s Community Center during a weekly Senior Connections lunch, making believe that he was returning home from four years at war at age 35 and had dropped in for a bite to eat. The presentation was sponsored by the not-for-profit Humanities Iowa.
About 80 people listened as Fargo gave a ground-level account of the Civil War from Goodfellow’s point of view, including soldiers’ dawning realization that, contrary to official proclamations, the fighting would not be over in three months, and what they could expect in terms of medical treatment, depending on where they were shot.
Murmurs of laughter rippled through the crowd as “Goodfellow” recounted his experience eagerly enlisting based on what the government would pay him — “13 bucks a month is big money, I don’t know what you guys make up here.”
He later highlighted what he argued was the underreported influence of Iowa soldiers in the war, noting, “We took out nine out of the 11 Confederate states. Who do you read about in the paper all the time? Those guys out on the East Coast,” adding with a smile, “You’re hearing a lot of my bias come through, huh?”
Now president of the Army of the Southwest re-enactor club, Fargo told The Gazette his group’s main mission is education — and teaching history in ways that resonate with audiences of all ages.
“You read all the research and you find out what you’re up against, and research says 80 percent of the country swears up and down that they hate history,” he said. “Why? They can’t verbalize it, but just from my experience, it’s because it doesn’t mean anything to them. Using the Civil War as an example, if I did traditionally what most other people did, and talked about the battles, Lincoln, Grant and those guys, the adults for the most part would say ‘Yeah, who cares?’”
A workaround for Fargo is bringing his collection of Civil War artifacts, including real old-time artillery and replica firearms and uniforms, all of which is hands-on. One of his recurring “shticks” involves handing members a large musket soldiers used and soliciting guesses as to how much it weighs.
“If you can pick (the items) up and handle them, it’s a much better effect,” Fargo said. “ ‘You can take your hands out of your pockets and touch things, I won’t tell your mother, it’s OK.’ ”
Whether his audiences are rapt or interjecting with war questions, Fargo said he enjoys the spontaneity of the improvisation and ultimately hopes people leave his performances with more of an appreciation for history.
“I hope that they leave with the idea that history isn’t something that is just dead and buried,” he said. “It’s something they can compare their everyday lives to, and they can relate to it.”
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