When Larry Johnson, of Warren County, started reenacting the history of his ancestor Abel Johnston about seven years ago, it was with an interest in teaching his children and grandchildren about their family’s Revolutionary War history.
Using the children’s department at the Page County Library, he set up about 80 items that a soldier would have used in the war. When his two daughters led in several of his young grandchildren, he remembered their confusion.
They hardly looked at the display, he recalled, the older ones preferring to look at their cell phones.
“Why are we here?” one of them asked.
Johnson, who was hiding behind a bookshelf, stood up and revealed himself as wearing a soldier’s uniform and tri-corner hat, carrying a prop musket.
“I’m 265 years old,” he told them. “I’ve come back to tell you what your family did to get our freedom.”
It was the first historical program he offered about his ancestor, but the experience has led to a passion for talking about local history.
Last year he gave 147 programs at area locations that include churches and assisted living facilities. As a pastor, he often brings the sacraments to veterans along with a sermon about freedom and commitment based on a Bible verse from John 15:13 — “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
This week, Johnson, 82, will perform two programs with a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
He will be at Hidden Springs Senior Living, 973 Buck Mountain Road, Bentonville, at 2 p.m. Saturday and the Warren Heritage Society, 101 Chester St., Front Royal, at 2 p.m. Sunday.
At noon on July 24, he will speak to the National Association of Retired Federal Employees at the Clarion Inn (previously the Best Western Lee-Jackson Inn and Conference Center) in Winchester, presenting the story: “Abel Johnston-Liberty Man in the Revolution and One Family’s Fight for Freedom.”
“I have 10 programs that I do now,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since 2013.”
Among his programs, he talks about the war in Shenandoah County, which he said declared independence from Great Britain on June 16, 1774.
One of the county's most notable residents was Peter Muhlenberg, who as a young man shunned his studies, was kicked out of seminary, quit his job with an apothecary, and signed up to fight with the British army.
Muhlenberg eventually found his calling, though, as a country preacher and recruited about 300 men from Woodstock to fight with the Continental Army.
Though he served several churches in the Valley, after his sermon, Muhlenberg took off his clergy gown, marched against England, and never preached again.
Johnson said he became interested in his family's Revolutionary War history after his daughter sent him a package of papers that she had found while researching to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. The package sat around unopened for several months until Johnson was snowed in at home one day with nothing to do.
Much of the papers were handwritten, and he thought it would be boring. But he started reading and after several hours was hooked.
“[M]y knees were so weak, I could hardly stand,” he said. “I read stuff that brought tears to my eyes.”
Abel Johnston was born in 1757 and was 19 when he went off to war for eight years.
He wrote about leaving his wife and children who had to fend off royalists who would come to homesteads and steal cattle and chickens. They would burn down houses, leaving families to flee and either find someone to help them or live in the woods.
“This happened to my family,” Johnson said.
Abel Johnston’s wife Ann fled into the woods, where her baby, Abel Jr., died from exposure.
“No baby would ever be named Abel again in our family,” Johnson said.
“I told these stories, and the kids were stunned … that we had that kind of history in our family.”
After the war, Abel Johnston journeyed home to North Carolina, arriving at Middle Creek along the border of the farm where he lived with his wife.
But he wouldn’t go home immediately, Johnson said.
“He did not want his sweet wife to see him in his ‘dirty situation,’” Johnson had read in one of his family’s journals.
“That brought tears to my eyes,” Johnson recalled. ”He bathed in the creek and he put on some clean clothes, and he went home.”