After spending 1,500 pounds of tobacco and waiting six months for him to arrive, Godiah Spray was relieved to finally meet his new indentured servant. The servant, a short fourth-grader from Laurel, seemed a little nervous, but Spray reassured him that it would be easy to learn how to grow tobacco.
"It's simple," he said in his tall hat, linen shift, puffy pants and leather boots, which kept flopping down as though he were someone in a 17th-century Dutch painting. "You just have to bed it, plant it, cover it when it's cold, uncover it when it's hot, weed it, thin it, hill it, transplant it -- "
The students from Faith Baptist Christian School visiting Historic St. Mary's City started to giggle as he went faster and faster: "Worm it, weed it, sucker it, top it, harvest it, cut it, wilt it, stick it, break it, stake it, hang it, cure it, hand it, pack it, cap it, roll it, ship it."
He took them inside the dark barn and leapt up a wall, clinging to rafters until he got to the tobacco drying near the roof. The students stared up, mouths open, as he handed down a stave of twisted brown leaves.
This is St. Mary's County, where commissioners dress up in linen tunics and tall hats at least once a year, where there are historic plantations and historic forts and historic churches. Traffic piles up near Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Navy planes zoom overhead, and new stores and new houses are filling the farmland nearby. But in a place where some families trace their roots back generations to the same plot of land, the historic sites carry a more personal meaning for many.
But not Aaron Meisinger, better know in Historic St. Mary's City as Godiah Spray, owner of a tobacco plantation that is a living history museum of Maryland's agricultural beginnings. Meisinger grew up all over the country and stumbled into this surreal job right out of college, thinking he was going to do theater. He'd never been to Colonial Williamsburg, never seen anything like it.
And yet he stayed, 18 years now.
Sure, the job has its downsides: pulling worms off tobacco leaves on sweaty August afternoons; weird 17th-century tan lines; state budget cuts; pigs in heat.
Sometimes people recognize him, out in the 21st century. "Hey, you're Godiah Spray!" they say. "Do that thing."
"If you told me 20 years ago that I'd be cleaning out a cow barn, working in a tobacco field, I would have told you you were nuts," he said.
And yet . . . "it's great being master of the plantation," he said, looking around at the herb garden, the split-rail fences and the water beyond the trees shining bright blue in the sun. Chickens doddered by. His indentured servants were hard at work thinning the parsnip patch, skirts billowing over the grass. "Listen to that woodpecker," he said, pausing on a path into the woods. "It's beautiful."
Not only is he the main character, the motivation -- every actor's dream -- but he gets to split wood, learn every day, write research papers.
Most people, he knows, don't read historical texts after they leave school. So his goal is to engage visitors, rather than just repeating the same spiel and hoping maybe someone will remember something. Rather than spewing facts and figures, he wants to show how people really lived in 1660s Maryland in a way that's relevant today.
"It's the age-old question," he said. "Why is history important? . . . The more you know about your past, the more informed choices you can make about your future."
He tells them this: In England, if you were born poor, you stayed that way. In Maryland, anything is possible.
"In England I owned 50 acres of land and I could never hope to own more," he said. "Here I own 200 acres of land. Two hundred acres of land," he added, more loudly, when the students didn't seem too impressed.
"Wow!" they said, getting the hint.
"Oh, stop," he simpered.
"I'm going to teach you how to be rich," he told them. "I'm going to teach you how to get your own land. Put your fingers together like this," he said, rubbing his thumb against his fingers. "Say profit."
They rub their fingers greedily, cackling along with him.
"This is Maryland. There's a lot of opportunity." Everyone wants tobacco, he said, known in 1661 as good medicine for pregnant women, for bellyache, earache, toothache and just about anything else that could go wrong. They laugh again and stare.
Chris Goss, one of the teachers on the tour, said her students liked Godiah Spray because he involved all of them, asking whether they had delivered his new servant, teaching them to bow or curtsy when they greeted him, making them laugh. "It was more real," she said. "That's something they will remember."
Some day, Meisinger said, he'll leave, run a museum or play violin or become a massage therapist.
In the meantime, the tobacco bed needs weeding. It's a living.