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