Thanks to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, everyone has heard of Paul Revere. Unfortunately, no poet immortalized Kentucky's own Revolutionary War contemporary, John "Jack" Jouett Jr.
Like Revere, Jouett embarked on a dangerous journey to warn Revolutionary leaders, specifically Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Assembly, of the British plot to capture them.
Joel Meador, executive director of the Jack Jouett House in Woodford County, thinks the local hero outshines the national legend.
"People refer to him today as the 'Paul Revere of the South,'" Meador says, "which really is an undeserving slight considering that Jack rode 40 miles, alone, over rough terrain to warn a very large group of important leaders of the revolution. Paul Revere rode about 15 miles over relatively good roads, and he had help."
Never miss a local story.
More than 200 years after Jouett's less-than-famous ride, a playwright, a history teacher and a handful of Woodford County High School students are bringing Jouett's overlooked history to light.
And a kind of ghostly light at that.
A teenage cast stars in the second annual performance of If Walls Could Talk, a historical ghost walk that spans several decades of Jouett family history and illuminates the struggles of frontier life and the early trials of a nation.
The path from idea to performance began like many creative works, especially those that come alive in small towns, with interconnected strands of community members reaching out to one another.
Janice Clark, a member of the Woodford County Heritage Committee, had the original idea based on similar ghost walks hosted by other historic homes. Former University of Kentucky theater department chair Jim Rodgers served as artistic director and suggested Matt Merrill, a Woodford County High School history teacher and veteran historical re-enactor, serve as the show's director. Another Woodford Countian, published playwright David Richmond, stepped up to write the script.
The show debuted last year and is being presented this year with additional scenes.
Merrill took a re-enactment approach to directing the short production, which runs about 30 minutes. The performers do not interact with the audience or share tidbits of history like a tour guide in character might. Rather, the audience functions as voyeurs as the performance unfolds.
Merrill is quick to praise Richmond's work.
"He is wonderful at capturing the language and feel of the time in his script," Merrill says. "Most of the production is very historical, and where possible, David used the original letters and lore to develop the script.
Narrated by the "ghost" of Jouett's wife, Sally, the dramatic re-enactment begins June 3, 1781, with 27-year-old Jack's overnight ride through the dangerous wilderness, from Louisa County, Va., to Charlottesville, Va. It then follows the family through several pivotal epochs, some of national import and some of ordinary scope — such as Jack's ongoing struggle with his son Matthew. Jack could afford to send only one son to college, so he sent Matthew to study law at Transylvania University. Matthew, however, insisted on being a professional painter, a profession for which he gained considerable fame.
It is the mix of an ordinary local family's plight amid a historic national backdrop that frames much of the excitement and appeal of the ghost walk.
While most people think of historic home dwellers as rich or famous, that is not the case with the Jouetts. Yes, progenitor Jack helped to save the American Revolution, among other historical triumphs, and yes, many of his ancestors went on to become pillars of the community — one grandson served as mayor of Lexington, another as a Navy admiral during the Civil War — but the heart of the ghost walk is the interior experience of an ordinary family enduring extraordinary times.
"It's not the largest or grandest of historic houses, but it is one of the last remaining true representations of a house from its period for a person of Jack's wealth and station in life," Meador says. "He was not exorbitantly wealthy, and while he owned quite a bit of land, the amount he did own paled in comparison to others."
Director Merrill worked carefully with the Woodford County students to get the language, movement, tone and feel of this ordinary family up to historical snuff.
"Getting that historical accuracy has been sometimes challenging for the kids," Merrill says. "The speaking is a lot more formal, and the carrying and conduct of their character is much different than a 21st-century teen. The costuming goes a long way. ... Kids like to slouch, and that is pretty hard to do in a period dress."
The young actors are tasked not just with bringing ghostly historical characters to life just in time for Halloween but raising awareness of the Jack Jouett house.
"Knowing that the Jouett family's remarkable story is one of our biggest assets," Meadow says. "The Jack Jouett House believed that staging a theatrical interpretation of it would allow us to reach an audience that otherwise might not think to visit the house."
If last year's attendance is any indication — which included a group of high school students from Colorado that is returning this year — the haunting will easily scare up new audiences.
Coincidentally, Meador says that the Jouett House is not actually haunted. "I wish," he says.