Mr. Charlie Skees as General Custer
General Custer is indeed alive!
In August 2009 I was finally able to meet the star of Elizabethtown's Costumed Walking Tour....General George Armstrong Custer who was brought to life by the very capable Mr. Charlie Skees. I originally traveled to Elizabethtown Kentucky in July 2009 to see the Costumed Walking Tour but General Custer was away on vacation and not present. Needless to say I was disappointed. I inquired about future dates when General Custer would be present and was given extremely helpful advice and information about contacting Mr. Skees to set up an interview. The people in Elizabethtown were all amazing and a nicer group of people will be extremely difficult to find.
I exchanged emails with Mr. Skees and a mutual date and time was arrived at that was good for both of us. The emails Mr. Skees sent were very polite and professional. Mr. Skees had agreed to meet me an hour before the Costumed Walking Tour began. I don't know how many of you have vacationed in the south in July and August but it's hot and I really appreciated Mr. Skees showing up on time and wearing that heavy costume for an extra hour in the summer heat.
I arrived at the Brown-Pusey House and went to the back garden. As I exited the door I saw Mr. Skees at the rear, standing there in costume. From where I stood it looked as though I had stepped into a time machine and had stumbled upon General Custer at home. It was really cool to see General Custer standing in the very gardens he strolled in while serving post Civil War duty in Kentucky. I made my way across the lawn and introduced myself. A warm and friendly handshake and polite greeting from Mr. Skees followed. Mr. Skees had that great Kentucky slight accent with just a touch of drawl in it. Being from West Virginia originally, I told Mr. Skees it was wonderful to hear someone speak without an accent! Mr. Skees told me he was a lifelong resident of Kentucky and born in a doctor's office instead of a hospital. I teased Mr. Skees that if he were truly from Kentucky he must ride horses. Mr. Skees assured me he has ridden horses in the past but currently doesn't own one. Like General Custer, Mr. Skees has a fondness for dogs and sadly told me his Norwegian Elk Hound had just passed away.
Ever the doubting Thomas, I put my hostage-crisis negotiator skills to work and began to feel Mr. Skees out about his knowledge of General Custer. It certainly didn't take me long to realize Mr. Skees knew his Custer and particularly his Kentucky Custer. We chatted about aspects of the General's career and exchanged views. Many of our perceptions about the General were quite similar.
Mr. Skees allowed me to examine his uniform and ask a lot of questions about the items, such as where he got them and the costs. For those of you who don't know much about re-enacting or costumed period dressing, it's expensive. Mr. Skees has absorbed all of the costs for his uniform for the nearly twenty years that he has been doing the Elizabethtown Costumed Walking Tour. I asked if there was a DVD of the Walking Tour and Mr. Skees advised me there wasn't. Mr. Skees said it had been filmed to use in the local school district. I told him that I felt they could certainly sell copies of it and that it was the highlight of my previous visit. I teasingly suggested that since he was the secretary of the Hardin County Historical Society for the past thirteen years that maybe he could get it done.
Mr. Skees got the acting bug while performing high school plays. He later performed in numerous outdoor dramas. About twenty years ago Sheriff Charles Logsdon wrote the original script for the Costumed Walking Tour. Mr. Skees originally portrayed a Union Soldier in it before moving on to General George Armstrong Custer as updates to the script evolved. Mr. Skees stated he has never been heckled or received hate mail because of his portrayal as the sometimes controversial General Custer (boy is he lucky!). Mr. Skees said he does get some Civil War re-enactors commenting about his uniform and some inaccuracies in it. Mr. Skees stated he that he dresses for what people expect General Custer to look like, mainly from movies...aahhh the power of TV and movies! I can assure you that after seeing Mr. Skees up close, he takes the condition of his uniform seriously. It looked good and was well maintained.
Mr. Skees is a retired history teacher who loved westerns as a kid and has a lifelong fascination with the American frontier. Mr. Skees especially likes researching and examining the lives of Jeb Stuart, Daniel Boone, and George Custer. Mr. Skees visited the Little Big Horn Battlefield in 1998 and, like me, found it very somber as he took in the scenery. When asked about the the Little Big Horn battle, Mr. Skees felt like General Custer was made to be the scapegoat of the failed campaign since he wasn't there to defend himself. Mr. Skees felt the Major Reno inquiry a few years after the battle was definitely used to make General Custer the scapegoat.
Mr. Skees other favorite Custer site is Gettysburg where General Custer led his famous charges of the Michigan Calvary Wolverines. It's also his favorite Custer "moment" since General Custer led the charges from in front of his men, instead of being at headquarters. Warner Brothers "They Died With Their Boots On" is his favorite Custer movie. Mr. Skees also prefers the US Civil War Custer to the Indian Wars Custer.
Prior to wrapping up Mr. Skees showed me his autographed photos of General Custer and his beautiful wife Libbie. They were quite amazing and I was quite envious! Just prior to getting ready to begin his portion of the Costumed Walking Tour, Mr. Skees said he's beginning to feel a little old to be portraying the forever youthful General Custer. I assured him he didn't really look too old, as General Custer was exposed to the sun and elements for decades and wasn't a particularly young looking man for his age. Ever gracious, Mr. Skees thanked me and headed off for his portrayal.
I watched from a distance as Mr. Skees awaited the crowd while "reading" a book. When the crowd arrived at his station Mr. Skees ceased to exist and General George Armstrong Custer suddenly appeared in his place. The slight drawl and relaxed mannerisms dissipated and became the fast paced speech and animated mannerisms of General Custer. The crowd, as well as I, became enthralled with the performance. Even the children were drawn to him as he continued his highly informative performance. It certainly was my favorite of the Costumed Walking Tour. After viewing this performance I certainly hope Mr. Skees doesn't soon end his portrayal of General Custer.
Mr. Skees sought me out after the crowd went on to the next station. He thanked me for the interest in the Walking Tour and his portrayal. I told him the pleasure was all mine and how wonderful I thought his performance was.
As I watched Mr. Skees walk to his vehicle I thought Custer Lives indeed.........
The above photos were taken in the garden of the Brown-Pusey House where General George Armstrong Custer lived in Elizabethtown KY.