Confessions of... A Historical Interpreter

Bill Barker has spent 17 years living as Thomas Jefferson in Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg—tricornered hats, television appearances, and all.

An actor playing Bill Barker who plays Thomas Jefferson (got that?) at Colonial Williamsburg

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I'm Thomas Jefferson, y'all
I first realized I was a good fit for the role in 1983, when a friend who was moonlighting as William Penn noted my physical resemblance to Jefferson. And slipping into his Southern accent is easy for me: My father was a 10th-generation tobacco farmer, and I grew up listening to him speak. Sometimes I find myself talking with the accent off duty.

The town's best dinner theater
You see Colonial Williamsburg employees all around town—buying groceries, running errands—and we're doing it in costume. One of my favorite local restaurants is an Asian spot on Waller Mill Road called Peking. That place gets flooded with colonial folks around lunch time. It has a great buffet.

Kids know what's up
When I ask children if they know who I am, they'll usually say one of two things: "You wrote the Declaration of Independence," or, "You were the third president." Their questions are considered and pertinent. It's not always the same for the parents. They'll ask, "Is that fire hot?" when they see the blacksmith's furnace, or, "Are you hot in those clothes?" as I'm dripping with sweat.

The art of ad-libbing
Of the nearly 1,100 costumed employees here, only about 40 are professional actors—and we don't just follow a script. We have to be true scholars. If I'm not sure how Jefferson would have answered a visitor's question, I study up in our library in case it surfaces again.

We sweat to the oldies
Living on the property is like living in a museum. You can't have any modern equipment that's visible from the street—not even an air conditioner—and you can't plant any flowers in your garden that wouldn't have been there 200 years ago.

One job I'll never do
People ask me to make appearances all the time—at the opening of a shopping mall, or in an ad for a used-car dealership—especially around Presidents' Day. I've never said yes.

Our biggest celebrity fan
One offer I did accept was to go on The Colbert Report (Stephen Colbert loves Colonial Williamsburg). The producers also called in two other Jeffersons, and we competed in an on-air Q&A, an arm-wrestling match, and a race to make hats out of newspaper. In the end, I was eliminated in a coin toss.

Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, 101A Visitor Center Dr., Williamsburg, Va., history.org, adults $36, children $18.

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