Northeast Times

Once upon a Nation

Matt Muto is sharing the city’s history through the art of storytelling.

Shar­ing stor­ies: Ta­cony res­id­ent Matt Muto tells his­tor­ic­al tales on Mar­ket Street for the non­profit His­tor­ic Phil­adelphia Inc. ‘Once Upon a Na­tion’ is a col­lec­tion of true stor­ies de­signed to height­en an ap­pre­ci­ation and un­der­stand­ing of Amer­ic­an her­it­age. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Matt Muto can tell you stor­ies, but his tales aren’t per­son­al re­min­is­cences; they’re little slices of the city’s her­it­age.

“I tell stor­ies that re­late to the his­tory of Phil­adelphia and the birth of the na­tion,” he said in a Ju­ly 18 in­ter­view. “They’re not stor­ies you can find in his­tory books,” and they teach kids and adults about the events that af­fected the na­tion, he ad­ded.

The day be­fore, the Ta­cony res­id­ent was telling those tales at a bench on Mar­ket Street between 2nd and 3rd. He works a few days a week for the non­profit His­tor­ic Phil­adelphia Inc., talk­ing up the city’s his­tory through the art of storytelling. 

A staff his­tor­i­an work­ing with the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice cre­ated a Once Upon a Na­tion col­lec­tion of true stor­ies de­signed to height­en an ap­pre­ci­ation and un­der­stand­ing of our Amer­ic­an her­it­age. The stor­ies, ac­cord­ing to His­tor­ic Phil­adelphia, in­clude those of slaves, work­ers and ser­vants and fo­cus on justice, re­volu­tion, in­teg­rity, di­versity, in­ven­tion, cre­ativ­ity and risk-tak­ing.

One of Muto’s fa­vor­ite stor­ies is a little-known one about Ben­jamin Frank­lin, per­haps the city’s most fam­ous res­id­ent.

The tale is called “Change of Heart, Change of Mind,” and fo­cuses on a school Frank­lin foun­ded for black and white chil­dren in pre-Re­volu­tion­ary War Phil­adelphia. Some of the chil­dren were free and some were en­slaved, but Frank­lin found they all were learn­ing the same things. This led to change Frank­lin’s opin­ions about slavery, Muto said, and he be­came an act­ive op­pon­ent. The man who had once pos­ted slaves for sale in his Pennsylvania Gaz­ette later be­came pres­id­ent of Pennsylvania’s ab­ol­i­tion­ist so­ci­ety, Muto said.

Muto talks about the city’s his­tory to Phil­adelphi­ans as well as tour­ists from all over the coun­try and all over the world, to adults and to chil­dren.

Kids like the funny stor­ies, he said. Stor­ies about Phil­adelphi­an Al­lan McLane are a lot of fun, Muto said.

McLane, a cap­tain in the Con­tin­ent­al Army, was ap­poin­ted by Gen. George Wash­ing­ton to spy on the Brit­ish in Phil­adelphia, which they had oc­cu­pied. 

“He was con­sidered a mas­ter spy,” Muto said. 

The cap­tain was good at hid­ing from the Brit­ish, but McLane so en­joyed rais­ing a little hell, too. He stole the food farm­ers were try­ing to sell to the Brit­ish, and once de­cided to dis­rupt a party the Brit­ish and Loy­al­ists were hold­ing.

Muto at­ten­ded Thomas Holme Ele­ment­ary School, Fath­er Judge High and the School for Cre­at­ive and Per­form­ing Arts be­fore go­ing to Penn State for his­tory and Amer­ic­an stud­ies. He began work­ing for His­tor­ic Phil­adelphia when he was in high school, and was work­ing in mar­ket­ing there after col­lege.

Right now, mar­ket­ing is his oth­er job, so he doesn’t tell stor­ies near the city’s his­tor­ic sites as much as he once did. He’s sort of a swing-shift storyteller, he said. Weekly, he is at Val­ley Forge. In his mar­ket­ing job, he takes people on his­tor­ic tours and pub crawls.

As a storyteller, he said, “I’ve met people from all over the world.”

Many are tour­ists from dif­fer­ent coun­tries and states, but a few seem to be vis­it­ing from dif­fer­ent states of mind.

“We get some vis­it­ors who have been liv­ing on the street, or have drink­ing or drug prob­lems,” Muto said. One young man was car­ry­ing an 8-foot cross that had wheels at­tached to it. “He told me he was do­ing a school pro­ject,” Muto said.

Then there was the time a guy came by and stayed the en­tire day.

“He wanted to tell me his stor­ies,” Muto said. “And his stor­ies were not really fam­ily-ori­ented.” ••

For more in­form­a­tion, vis­it www.his­tor­ic­phil­adelphia.org

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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