Deceased people came back to life Saturday in Rockford — but rest assured, no “Walking Dead” or other type of zombie phenomenon emerged to plague the countryside.
Instead, members of a Mount Airy-based theatrical troupe illustrated the importance of history not from the standpoint of old buildings and records, but something more vital.
“The buildings are secondary, the town is secondary — it’s the people,” said Jim Garber. He had journeyed all the way from his home in Dayton, Ohio, to attend the seventh-annual “Remember Rockford Families Reunion” in the restored historic village south of Dobson which was founded in 1790.
“The buildings give you an impression of what the town was like,” Garber added as he stood outside the circa 1916 Rockford Methodist Church. But, he said, “when you get together at a place like this, it’s the people.”
So it was appropriate that Saturday’s gathering sponsored by the Rockford Preservation Society involved an attempt to do just that — highlight those individuals who helped forge Surry County history along with that of Rockford, former county seat.
This was accomplished through the talents of the The Nonesuch Playmakers Theatre Group led by Brack Llewellyn, which performed for descendants of some of Rockford’s earliest families along with local history buffs who listened attentively from wooden church pews.
The group presented a series of informative and sometimes-humorous monologues in which they portrayed key figures from the time Rockford was a thriving center of commerce and before.
Llewellyn said pre-performance that the preparation for this involved pulling a lot of things together. First, Rockford Preservation Society members provided facts about the five individuals spotlighted.
“And we wrote monologues for them based on the information about the characters,” Llewellyn said, “and some anecdotal information as well,” including accounts supplied by family members.
“This kind of presentation is real special to us — kind of tapping into history.”
One of the “Founding Fathers” brought back to life was John Thomas Longino, who fled to this area in the 1700s to escape the Spanish Inquisition. “His father was actually put to death,” Llewellyn said.
“It’s a remarkable story,” he added of Longino. “His was a life that was straight out of the novels.”
David Nielsen, one of five Nonesuch Playmakers members who did the monologues for historic Rockford figures, took on that of Longino, including talking in an authentic-sounding Italian accent.
While in character as Longino, Nielsen related how the Italian immigrant came to Rockford in 1777 as the American Revolution was under way.
Longino became a landowner locally, of more than 1,000 acres, along with a deputy sheriff, sheriff, tax collector and member of the state General Assembly.
All this made Longino come to believe he was not well-liked in the community, so his response was to open a tavern in 1783. “My popularity increased immensely,” Longino (Nielsen) said with a laugh.
Other historical nuggets were offered by Nonesuch Playmakers performer Ray Jones, who portrayed Jesse Lester, another tavern owner.
In one, Lester (Jones) told of how Andrew Jackson stayed at his establishment on many occasions. Jackson had gained a reputation as being a “dashing young man” at times — including when he once dashed out the door of the tavern without paying his bill.
The character of Lester said his wife could not believe such behavior could be possible from a lawyer, but the tavern owner informed her otherwise. He considered the debt paid when Gen. Jackson saved the day at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
Llewellyn recreated the character of William Polk Dobson, who described how Rockford grew with the help of Dobson and other community leaders who put the town on the map and led to it serving as the Surry County seat until 1850. Dobson, a father of 12, joked (via Llewellyn) that his has been a lasting legacy in these parts.
“Somebody tells me there’s a town with my name somewhere nearby.”
The theatrical group also included Brian Greene and Grant Perry (who portrayed Henry Speer, a town commissioner in Rockford, and landowner Thomas Ayers, respectively).
Ayers’ character described how 55 acres of his property at Rockford were taken through eminent domain proceedings that led to him receiving only 67 cents for the transaction in today’s dollars — “my contribution to this happy place.”
Among other activities during Saturday’s six-hour Remember Rockford Families Reunion, attendees who are descended from the village’s long-ago residents traded information and stories and toured local historic sites.
The Rockford Preservation Society was formed in 1972 to acquire, restore and maintain its buildings of historic importance along with serving as a repository of knowledge about the community’s places and people.
“We’ve got folks from all over,” Hannah Holyfield, a member of the group’s governing board, said of those assembled Saturday, who came from states such as Texas and Ohio in addition to various North Carolina communities.
“It does have a home feel — it’s a very comfortable feel,” said Carolyn Sayre Garber, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Mark York, who owned a tavern in Rockford in the 1830s era.
Her husband Jim said the genealogy aspect is the real drawing card among people at events such as Saturday’s, who want to know more than dates about Rockford and its people in olden times.
Those attending the reunion seemed in agreement that this was accomplished by the theatrical group led by Llewellyn, who said while in costume for the William Polk Dobson character that the story of Rockford offers a lesson.
“Rockford was an idea — and a much-needed idea,” he said, attributing this to its Founding Fathers aspiring to something greater than themselves. “It was perfect in its time.”
Llewellyn said that while those folks are long-dead, the “light” still shines among individuals who are working hard to keep Rockford’s history, and spirit, alive today.
“Explore your own history,” he urged audience members, “no matter where you’re from.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.