Conner Prairie, just north of Indianapolis, is a wonderful interactive history farm that tells so many stories about where our nation has been and how far we have come. Founded by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in 1974, it was the nation’s first living history farm.
Follow the North Star
My favorite program – or maybe my least favorite, depending on how you look at it – is Follow the North Star. It’s a deeply immersive experience that teaches us about freedom and the frightening search for it as experienced by runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Let me tell you, that’s a road trip you don’t want to take.
Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which subsequently won a couple of awards.
A red cloth tied to the front door. We knew if we found it, we would be safe. We could rest for a while and maybe have something to eat.
Nobody would shout at us, call us horrible names, threaten or shoot at us.
We would be safe, if we could just find the red cloth tied to the front door.
I had been on this journey for just 90 minutes, replicating an escape through the Underground Railroad, but the experience had already transformed my spirit as no other journey before it had. I found myself withdrawn, eyes to the ground, fearful of making decisions for my own well-being. I just wanted it to end. I wanted to be free of fear.
Visiting Conner Prairie
The 90-minute North Star program at Conner Prairie is the only permanent program of its kind in the U.S. They use actual buildings from the time period, the darkness of night, and costumed interpreters so good in their roles that an Academy award is surely in someone’s future. It’s so intense and scary that children under 12 are not allowed to participate. The program is held weekend nights November for the public and in March/April for students.
From the moment my friends and I stepped into the woods, we were no longer 12 middle-aged white people living in the 21st Century. We were black slaves in the year 1836. We were shouted at and called the most vulgar names. Dogs barked, shot guns blasted and we were threatened with our lives. I struggled to keep my wits and focus on the fact that this was just an act, a part of the learning experience.
Lessons from Follow the North Star
When it was all over,we talked about the experience, relating it to modern issues of human trafficking, bullying and self-esteem. We talked about our own personal fears and how, with just a few minutes of verbal abuse, we began to doubt ourselves.
We left reinforced in the knowledge that history, if not studied and appreciated, will only repeat itself in another time and place and to another people.