Jab, heave, turn. Jab, heave, turn. The sun was glaring as my 12-year-old, Hannah, and I, pitchforks in hand, attacked a three-foot-tall compost heap whose contents were destined for the vegetable garden. I longed to escape to the summer kitchen, fan my face with my apron, and guzzle the field hands’ shrub, a vinegary apple drink. But what would the other ladies think?Besides, my husband, Steve, and eight-year-old, Daniel, had taken on the more onerous task of mucking out the stables. Welcome to my family’s reality vacation. At Conner Prairie, an open-air living-history museum in Fishers, Indiana, we were taking a trip back in time, to try out late-19th-century agrarian life. After the compost was dealt with, there were cows to milk, wood to split. And did I mention the chamber pot in need of emptying?
The “Weekend on the Farm” program at Conner Prairie—the museum was named for early fur trader and settler William Conner—is one of an increasing number of hands-on history experiences open to all ages. But while other setups might let participants fire a musket or crimp a piecrust, this one takes turning back the clock further, with each person assuming a fictional role. Over our two days, costumed staff members would remain steadfastly in character (when a visitor inadvertently used the word airplane, one of them looked at him blankly and said: “I don’t know that word”), and we weekenders were expected to do the same.
Orientation materials informed us that Steve, a New York City English teacher, was to be a horse farmer named Charlie Gilpin; I’d be his wife, Eva, and Hannah would be Dora. “I can’t believe I’m Sylvester,” wailed Daniel, who was otherwise thrilled by the prospect of playing farm boy for the next couple of days.
Our experiment in time travel would center on an 1886 farmstead. To reach it, our group of 10 weekenders—which included another family of four, known to us as the Landises, as well as a woman and her 10-year-old granddaughter, who would also be Gilpins—followed a path from the visitors’ center through a replica of a settlement from 1836, back when Indiana, then a 20-year-old state, was the country’s western frontier. As we toured an inn and strolled by a carpenter’s house, our guides told us about the Zimmerman clan, who once populated these parts. It was a short walk to our home base: the Zimmermans’ green-shuttered buff Victorian farmhouse. While day visitors trooped through the first floor—past the parlor’s pump organ and the dining room’s walnut sideboard with silverware fanned out on top—we weekenders slipped through a door off the kitchen and mounted the back stairs to our rooms. My family’s snug space had yellow flowered wallpaper; three beds; an oil lamp; and a white ironstone pitcher and washbasin, with which we were to try to keep ourselves passably clean.