Nearly 110 years have passed since General Laurence Simmons Baker last entered the Seaboard Airline Railroad Station on Main Street in Suffolk, Virginia.
General Baker’s portrait hangs – in memoriam – at the railroad station museum owned and operated by the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society as a tribute to a man who was once one of Suffolk’s leading citizens.
Following the Civil War, Laurence Simmons Baker served as agent for the Seaboard Airline Railroad and Southern Express Company in Suffolk for 30 years. His service came to an abrupt end with his death on April 10, 1907 at the age of 76.
Baker’s remains are interred in the Baker family plot in Cedar Hill Cemetery, little more than a stone’s throw from the railroad station where he worked for three decades.
Frank Earnest, a living history interpreter who grew up in Norfolk and now lives in Virginia Beach, resurrects General Baker – and other historic personages – from time to time.
When the Tom Smith Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans restored and rededicated General Baker’s gravesite, Frank Earnest was among those who participated in the ceremony.
The general’s grave is within four hundred yards of the train station where he served as stationmaster for 30 years. Just as the keynote speaker concluded his remarks about how General Baker ended up in Suffolk as the stationmaster, a train rolled by blowing its whistle.
“Of course, everyone assumed that we had arranged it exactly at that time,” recalled Earnest. “If anyone timed that whistle, it was probably General Baker.”
Earnest has been portraying General Baker for two to three years now. When a local resident – and descendant of General Baker – was unable to undertake his usual role at a train station event, Earnest was asked to fill in as General Baker. He took the opportunity to portray Stationmaster Baker very seriously. He prepared by thoroughly researching Baker’s life.
“I’m a living historian who has portrayed several people from history,” said Earnest. “When I do it, I just don’t stand around in the clothes. I become interested in the person,” he said. “If you’re going to portray that person, you really have to be that person. You have to know his wife’s name. You have to know the names of their children.”
Laurence Simmons Baker was born at Cole’s Hill Plantation in Gates County, North Carolina in 1830. He attended Norfolk Academy and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1851. He graduated last in his class – the goat.
Baker was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant and assigned to the 3rd U.S. Cavalry (Mounted Rifles). Captain Baker served in the U.S. Army for almost a decade before resigning his commission in May of 1861 after North Carolina seceded from the Union.
When Captain Baker entered Confederate service, he was appointed lieutenant colonel in the 1st North Carolina Cavalry. His cavalry unit was assigned to General J. E. B. Stuart’s brigade. He was quickly promoted to colonel.
Colonel Baker fought in nearly all the engagements of the Army of Northern Virginia – including the huge cavalry battle at Brandy Station. Following Gettysburg, Colonel Baker was instrumental in performing the rear guard action that protected General Lee’s army as it withdrew to Virginia. Colonel Baker was severely wounded near Brandy Station on July 31st (1863). He was recommended for promotion to brigadier general on that same day.
“General Baker is an unsung hero. He was a brigadier general who was never promoted because of the arm wound,” said Earnest. “We’ve heard so much about General Robert E. Lee, General Stonewall Jackson, General Jeb Stuart, General Pickett, A.P. Hill, and others,” he said. “I just don’t understand why more people haven’t heard of General Baker. He’s a ‘new’ general, someone we haven’t heard of over and over again.”
When Frank Earnest portrays General Baker, he’s not dressed in a Confederate uniform as depicted in the train station portrait – with his right arm in a sling and his uniform coat draped over his shoulder.
Earnest wears period appropriate civilian clothing. Clothing very much like the clothing Civil War veterans – gray and blue – wore to veterans reunions at the turn of the century. Earnest’s depiction of General Baker is a post war portrayal and he dresses in historically appropriate fashion.
“Baker doesn’t go to work at the train station until 1877. That’s 12 years after the war,” noted Earnest. “We were just coming out of reconstruction. Nobody was walking around in Confederate uniforms,” he said. “I wear civilian attire. I am Stationmaster Baker. If anyone wants to know anything about the war, I reminisce.”
Frank Earnest has been interested in Confederate soldiers his entire life. He is proud to be a descendant of Confederate soldiers and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It has motivated him to do historically accurate portrayals of historic figures as well as generic soldiers and civilians.
“I’m getting older. We all do,” observed Earnest. “We get gray hair. It becomes a bit much to try to portray a 25 or 30-year-old soldier when you’re getting up in years,” he observed. “By doing post-war Baker, it is more in keeping with my age. It explains why I’m not the young, gaunt soldier that he was when the war began.”
His post-war portrayal allows Frank Earnest to reminisce and to tell more of the story – of the surrender, reconstruction, and social change. He likes that element and the freedom of interpretation that it provides.
Often Frank Earnest wears a black hat with UCV – United Confederate Veterans – on it during his interpretations. Baker’s work at the train station in Suffolk was “right about the time” of the founding of the United Confederate Veterans organization. General Baker was instrumental in helping to found the UCV chapter in Suffolk called the Tom Smith Camp, United Confederate Veterans.
From time to time, Seaboard Airline Train Station Museum visitors, inquire about the portrait of General Baker that hangs conspicuously in the train station museum.
“We have a map of Suffolk from 1907 which – I just learned – was the year General Baker died. He was the first stationmaster,” said Lucas Tiffany, the museum coordinator. “We can see here on this map exactly what Suffolk looked like at that time period. Actually, it’s a very large city for the time,” he said. “A lot of industry was centered here. All the railroads came through town.”
Colette Coliandro, a Suffolk resident, has been frequenting the train station museum for years. She finally had an opportunity to meet Stationmaster Baker – in the person of Frank Earnest.
Coliandro characterizes the museum station attendants as friendly and welcoming. She loves the historical displays that offer a look at models of the original trains that stopped at the Suffolk station in times past. She loves the history and her grandchildren enjoy the train sets.
“I hadn’t met General Baker before, but I had heard of his reputation. I spoke with him today, and it was quite an experience,” said Coliandro. “He was involved in the war as a general. After the war he came here as the station master. He was active here for 30 years after that.”
General Baker and Colette Coliandro – it turns out – had a couple of things in common – horses and railroads.
General Baker was a cavalry officer during the war and I was instructed in horseback riding as a child by one of the last [U.S. Army] cavalry officers,” said Coliandro. “He was 80-years-old when he instructed me. He was the best rider I ever met,” Coliandro recalled. “At 80, he could outride any of us teenagers.”
Coliandro’s father came from Council Bluffs, Iowa. He worked on the trains his whole life. She remembers that trains were the center of everything. She has a connection to the railroad in Council Bluffs. Her father loved it. “General Baker was an historical monument in Suffolk when he was living and now even though he’s gone,” observed Coliandro. “He’s buried here in the [Cedar Hill] cemetery. He’s overlooking his passion. He must have loved the railroad.” For more information regarding attractions in Historic Downtown Suffolk stop by the City of Suffolk Division of Tourism Visitor Center at 524 North Main Street or call 757-514-4130. A brochure that offers a self-guided walking tour of downtown Suffolk includes Riddick’s Folly, Cedar Hill Cemetery, and Seaboard Airline Train Station.
-By Bob Ruegsegger
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