STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For 21st Century Media
Once upon a time, a young man spent his summers telling stories about Philadelphia’s most historic figures: Benjamin Franklin. Anyone wandering through Franklin Court can hear all about the icon who lived quite the life, one worthy of being remembered (and memorialized by having a bridge named after him).
That young man is Ed Stroud and he tells stories about Franklin all day long.
Stroud, who grew up on the Main Line, has worked with Historic Philadelphia — an organization that aims to make U.S. history relevant and real through interpretation, interaction and education — for five years. Every day, he sits on a bench at Franklin Court and tells stories to passersby.
“Did you know,” he’ll ask, “that Franklin, who grew up in Boston, wanted to construct a fishing pier as a young man? He stole stones to do so and, through that experience, learned not to be dishonest.”
Other stories tell how Franklin became an abolitionist after owning slaves and about his electricity experiments. The stories — about two to three minutes for kids and up to six minutes for adults — are written by historians who research the subjects thoroughly.
Stroud studied history at Drexel University. He’s a John Adams fan, but enjoys talking about Franklin. He found the fact that Franklin owned slaves surprising.
“I thought he would have been above it,” he said, “That was a huge shock.”
The most interesting thing about Franklin, though, is that he wasn’t formally educated. Stroud, who recently graduated from Drexel and who lives in West Philadelphia, finds that fascinating.
“He didn’t go to college, but he was able to become this learned person by himself,” Stroud said. “I’ve had all this education and I don’t even feel like I compare to his intellect.”
Loving history makes the job interesting; enjoying speaking and acting makes the job fun.
“When I was little, I went to acting camps and thought maybe I want to be an actor, but that went by the wayside,” Stroud said. “I’m outgoing. Once you get me talking, I sort of run with it.”
His first year of storytelling was trying — he wanted to make sure he got everything right. But now he’s comfortable.
Generally, people stroll by him and ask for a story — he wears a uniform indicating who he works for and why he’s there. Other times, he’ll ring a bell to announce that he’s going to tell a story and people gather around.
“I yell, ‘Free story!’ and people come over,” he said.
He determines what to tell based on his audience — younger children might not understand the slavery story as much as adults, for example.
“It’s all based on what I think they might want to hear,” he said.
The weather sometimes puts a damper on his day — rain forces storytellers inside or under some sort of cover. The heat can do so, too.
“Really, that is the only downside of storytelling. You know in mid-July in Philadelphia when it feels like you’re wearing a hot wet blanket all day? That’s a challenge,” he said.
As long as he can do his job, he doesn’t care where he does it.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said.
He hopes that people enjoy listening as much as he enjoys the telling.
“It’s history in a fun way,” he said. “Teaching people and having them have fun with history —there’s nothing better than that.”
Franklin Court is on Market Street between 3rd and 4th streets. Other storytellers perch on benches throughout the historic sections of Philly. Information about Stroud and other storytellers, as well as July 4th activities by Historic Philadelphia, is available at www.historicphiladelphia.org.