Shorts and ball caps with American flag print are more of the go-to wear for the Fourth of July holiday than woolly 18th century garb.
But one Liberty County resident has picked the latter to show his patriotic pride and he has done it for more than two decades.
It was 1993 when David Swinford first positioned his three-corner hat as a re-enactor at the 74-acre Fort Morris Historic Site in Midway.
Despite being an Ohio native, Swinford almost instantly found himself at home.
He volunteered countless hours and joined the Friends of Fort Morris. He cleared up the difference between re-enacting and cosplay events, like DragonCon.
“A lot of the other things are fantasy,” Swinford said. “Either the Civil War or the Revolutionary War or French and Indian War, those were serious times and actual events that people are actually trying to re-create for purposes of entertainment for themselves and education of the public who come to those events.”
Health reasons recently caused him to pull in the reins on his passion. Wearing a wool uniform in the Georgia heat and talking to crowds in the humidity made it difficult.
So, Swinford resigned from the Friends of Fort Morris group this past November.
“I still go out there and help when I can with a couple programs when the kids come out there with the schools,” Swinford said.
But he still remembers when the annual Fourth of July event started in 1995.
“I think the Founders were right. It should be celebrated with fireworks, pomp, and circumstance to celebrate the fact that we’re independent from England,” Swinford said of the holiday.
A Craft And A Passion
Swinford found his career in public education after trying to enlist in the Air Force after high school. He got turned down for medical reasons.
A teacher layoff in Canton, Ohio forced him to Liberty County 1988.
“I was literally desperate looking for jobs and my brother-in-law was stationed at Fort Stewart and he said, ‘Come on down here,’” Swinford said.
He started teaching at Fort Stewart Schools and spent some time adjusting to the area before getting involved in his long-time interest in history. Back in Ohio, he did re-enactments with 21st Ohio volunteer infantry and the Fur Trade Era.
“It just fascinates me the way things used to be done,” he said, trying to explain his lifelong love for history.
Swinford and his wife packed up their children one day and did some exploring of their new home.
“We just kind of ran into that place just because we heard about a fort out at the coast,” Swinford said, recalling his first visit to Fort. He learned about the volunteer militia group and cannon crew.
While the history interests him more than the acting, Swinford said he found that being a teacher also helped in his re-enactments. He taught fifth grade for 15 years and kindergarten for 10 before he retired from education in 2013.
“When you’re doing re-enacting, you’re trying to take on a first-person persona so that you can do a good job talking about the history accurately,” Swinford said.
Swinford said he did a lot of research about the time period and the person he portrays in re-enactments. In an effort to stay true to the era, uniforms can get pricey and equipment can be hard to find.
“There’s a certain amount of dedication to the craft that you have to have over time,” Swinford said. “You’re not going to become a good re-enactor in a year or two. It takes a little while to generate the knowledge and the equipment and the experience to do a good job.”
Swinford’s re-enacting led him to start building fully-functional cannons as a hobby. Skills from his high school shop class came in handy, along with time spent with his father-in-law and my uncle who are both machinists.
He also researched artillery books, magazines, and historic documents before starting production.
“I built little cannons first, little desktop, tabletop stuff around 2000 or so. In 2004, someone asked me to build a large one,” Swinford said.
That first one held a three-pound ball and he made it for the group representing the second Georgia Artillery.
“I think there were seven of us that put in four or five hundred dollars a piece and we bought all the equipment,” Swinford said.
The group named it Grendel after the monster in epic poem Beowulf.
Cannons built by Swinford are now displayed in several local and non-local areas, including Wormsloe Historic Site, Fort King George, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Fighting For A Piece Of History
“What kept me going is the desire to see the site get its due and help it become a real, well-visited, well-interpreted, and appreciated site,” Swinford said of his volunteer work.
The Friends of Fort Morris was about 20 people strong in its heyday.
“At the time that I joined, I was the youngest person … and now, I’m 55 and the rest of them have passed away,” he said.
He hopes others take the torch because of the history at the fort and the entire county, pointing to Liberty County’s ties with three signers of the Declaration of Independence.
“That’s pretty darn significant,” Swinford said. “It’s very difficult for a lot of areas to claim any connection to that particular time period and Liberty County and all the colonial places in Georgia from Savannah down definitely have a connection to that.”
Fort Morris still is not well-known and could be a better tourist attraction, according to Swinford. But, given its current resources, he thinks management is doing a good job with the Fort, which is now only open Thursday through Saturday.
When he started volunteering in 1993, there were three full-time employees. Those jobs are now wrapped up into one.
Fort King George in Darien has had “hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years to do improvements,” he said, while the museum at Fort Morris has not had any major improvements or add-ons since the 70s.
“To me, it’s been a very frustrating experience to work as hard as we’ve had for over two decades and to see the place go like that,” Swinford said. “I don’t know what the ultimate endgame is, but there’s 74 acres of property there that I fear the state would really like to just sell to an investor and turn into condos. And that would be a piece of history lost forever and it would be a shame on the state of Georgia if that happens … there’s American dead soldiers buried there somewhere.”
Fort Morris was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.