|As small-town scenes go, the one on view at a coffee shop in Ashland one June afternoon was pretty standard: locals unwinding on loveseats, talking over mugs of coffee; a couple tucked into a corner nook, playing board games between bursts of laughter; a radio streaming Motown songs in the background, Marvin Gaye's silky voice soaring above all the chatter.
There was something a bit off, though. The Vandellas.
"I love this town; everybody knows everybody. It's like Mayberry!" said a beaming Annette Helton. Helton, a member of Martha and the Vandellas, one of the most successful R&B "girl groups" of the 1960s - responsible for churning out hits such as "Dancing in the Street" and "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave" - was perched on a stool in this small Ohio coffee shop just as comfortably as if she were back in her kitchen in Detroit. A few feet away, fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rosalind Holmes traded laughs with customers on the sofa.
"Ain't that peculiar?" Marvin Gaye sang in the background, crooning his 1965 hit of the same name, as if sensing the curiosity of all this. "Peculiar as can be ..."
Actually, the Vandellas' now frequent presence in Ashland - a destination they first fell in love with last year, after being invited by a friend who's a local businessman - is just as pleasantly surprising as the place they call home when they visit.
"Are you staying at The Jenny Wade? Oooohhhh, you'll love it!" said Helton. "It's like being in a movie!"
She could be talking about the fact that The Jenny Wade Bed & Breakfast, one of only three Ashland residences still remaining from before the Civil War, is so steeped in 19th-century ambiance that much of it looks like it belongs on the set of a period film: from the leather-bound rare books, oil lamps and 1861 sword leaning against the fireplace in the Abraham Lincoln Library, to an upstairs bedroom's spinning jenny, Eastlake furniture and nightstand topped with musket balls from the battle of Gettysburg. The lovingly preserved, 143-year-old building, with its collection of eye-catching antiques, makes it a favored overnighter for history enthusiasts, while such warm touches as the family of rocking chairs lining the front porch - the perfect Saturday morning spot from which to view a parade of Amish buggies ambling down Center Street - makes the B&B cozy enough for a couple of Motown legends in need of a little leisure.
Still, all those accessories aren't what sparked Helton's comparison to the silver screen. It's the actor in the house.
"Tom Selleck didn't have the smile. You have to have that Eisenhower smile," says Kenneth Neff Hammontree, living-history interpreter and co-owner of the B&B. He's recalling the "Magnum, P.I." star's 2004 television-movie portrayal of Dwight D. Eisenhower's time as a general - a role Hammontree has also played (complete with authentic 1940s military garb and the future president's speech inflections) upon request for visitors at The Jenny Wade, one of the only B&Bs in the country where guests can interact with some of history's noteworthy personalities.
And what does that famous Eisenhower smile look like?
Hammontree, 59, immediately sits up straight in his seat on the porch and flashes a look he's practiced countless times in a mirror: a carbon copy of that wide, toothy grin that launched a million "I Like Ike" campaign buttons.
Much more than simply buying wigs, applying makeup and mastering voices, Hammontree has honed his skills as an interpreter over the last 35 years, first adopting the traits of historical figures to get the attention of his students while a history teacher at Akron-area schools; then researching such notables as Simon Kenton in order to portray the famed frontiersman for performances with Ohio Chautauqua; and now inhabiting the personas of everyone from Paul Revere to "Pretty Boy" Floyd at schools, events and historical societies across the state through his company, Living History Productions.
"Somebody can be an actor, but being both an actor and historian, and combining the two so that it's in a story form that people would love to hear ... it's very difficult," says Hammontree, who can spend as much as two years researching a character.
Many of the B&B's guests who request the experience also treat it with a great deal of reverence. There was the government official who came all the way from Washington, D.C., for a dinner with George Washington at The Jenny Wade - then woke up the next morning, eager to eat breakfast with Tecumseh. Or, the woman who also requested an audience with Washington as a birthday gift for her autistic grandson, a history savant, and happily sat back and watched as the excited boy peppered the country's first president with question after question.
Dwight Eisenhower, though, is one of the most requested interpretations, and clearly ranks as one of Hammontree's favorite figures, too: He named one of the B&B's three bedrooms in his honor, and has it outfitted with 1910 bird's-eye maple furnishings and campaign memorabilia. Of course, in addition to the man's significant accomplishments, there is also the fact that Hammontree met his fiancÃ©e and fellow B&B owner Dianne Spreng while traveling with Ohio Chautauqua portraying Eisenhower, circa WWII.
"Yep. Four-star general," Hammontree says with a wink. "She fell in love with a military man."
"I used to hate history," says Spreng, 57, an Ashland native. "But I saw this incredible gift he had for it, and that intrigued me and made me want to learn more. He makes it so that it isn't boring."
In fact, it was her idea to name the B&B The Jenny Wade, after the only civilian killed during the battle at Gettysburg, a tale Hammontree (also a novelist) captured in his 1995 work of historical fiction, There Was A Time.
"I just thought, that is the softest, sweetest sounding name I've ever heard," says Spreng.
For Hammontree, his formerly history-phobic fiancee's interest in the past is a reminder of the impact of a well-presented moment in time. It's proof that his interpretations not only make The Jenny Wade B&B a unique and entertaining stay, they also provide a public service.
"Annette and I were talking one night in the library," he says, recalling the Vandellas' most recent visit. "And she said, 'You know, I don't know my black history like I should. They just didn't really teach it in the school where I grew up in Detroit.' So, we had a long talk, and she's going to start e-mailing me and studying her culture, her history.
"She's even thinking about playing Rosa Parks."
| The Jenny Wade Bed & Breakfast,
302 Center St., Ashland, 419/207-0177 or 419/606-4433.