History buff who greets Fort Ligonier visitors to receive tourism award
Matt Gault enjoys breathing life into the places and people of Ligonier’s past, especially when he can offer a view of history that surprises as much as it informs.
“I do enjoy portraying a Virginia provincial soldier,” said the Greensburg native, who greets visitors of all ages at Fort Ligonier, the reconstructed 18th- century British outpost that preceded the modern borough of the same name.
“The clothing is not what anyone would expect,” he said, pointing out that a loincloth might be an integral part of the soldiers’ attire. “They had adopted Indian dress because their uniforms wore out. They had long linen hunting shirts and leggings made out of wool.
“George Washington may have worn that as well” — at least at the beginning of his military career, when he confronted enemy forces at the start of the French and Indian War.
Gault’s attention to historical detail and the engaging way he presents it has earned him the Tourism Employee of the Year Award, to be presented Wednesday at the 59th annual Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau dinner.
As assistant director of education, Gault often dons period garb as he helps leads tours of the fort and its museum for more than 5,000 school students each year. “That’s on the rise,” he said. “We also get bus tours, and we do outreach programs at other sites,” including schools and area historical societies.
Gault was recommended for the visitors bureau honor by fellow members of the fort staff and was selected from more than a dozen nominees. The award recognizes a tourism industry worker for exceptional efforts that have contributed to the success of his employer’s business and to the growth of regional tourism.
“I’ve seen him with a small group of 7- to 8-year-olds coming to the fort for the very first time, and I’ve seen him with teenagers,” said Ann Nemanic, visitors bureau executive director. “He brings the textbook history to life and translates it into something that’s tangible for them.”
Gault, 25, is the perfect age to portray the young adult George Washington, when two wars stood between him and his ultimate role — first president of the United States.
“It’s daunting portraying George Washington,” Gault said. “It’s been fun. You have an entire history resting on your shoulders when you talk about him. He is one of the most revered icons in history. You try to stay in character.”
Gault said his aim is to humanize Washington as a young man serving Virginia’s and Great Britain’s interests in Pennsylvania. “It wasn’t always smooth sailing. This was his proving ground where he learned a lot,” he said.
It seems Gault was destined for his post at Fort Ligonier. “I have a picture from when I’m 8 years old outside one of the buildings dressed in a British officer’s uniform, and now I dress as a British officer here as an adult,” he said.
He’s also portrayed a member of the French militia.
Family vacations to preserved sites such as Colonial Williamsburg and Great Lakes forts fed Gault’s interest in history, prompting his pursuit of a teaching degree with a social studies focus at the Pitt-Johnstown campus. A summer internship at Fort Ligonier opened the door to his current position.
The fort’s Center for History Education, which opened in April, provides a spacious area for lectures, teacher seminars and kids’ activities such as building model forts.
“I love working with kids,” Gault said. “The period clothing is a huge thing they ask about. You try to get them to understand it’s the equivalent of them wearing jeans and a T-shirt today.
“What we really try to push is the reason we still learn about history. It not only impacts us today but will impact our future. It’s by the way we handle these (comparable) situations that we’ll be making history.“
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Jeff by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .