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.
Not that we’d be dallying in these quarters. After taking down a split-rail fence next to the big gray barn, we convened on the side porch for the first of our bountiful meals—chicken fricassee (based on a recipe from The Buckeye Cook Book, popular in the period), pickled beets and eggs, fresh bread, applesauce and apple butter, and coffee (store-bought, as the beans would have been in 1886, but the grounds tied up with cheesecloth and boiled in an enameled pot on a cast-iron stove), followed by chewy sugar cookies still warm from the oven.
Our stay was taking place after the wheat and oats had come in but before the corn harvest—a lull in the summer’s labors when 19th-century farmers might have visited neighbors and attended agricultural fairs. Although I hoed in the cornfield until I got a blister on my right thumb, and “Sylvester” exhausted himself using the push mower on the front lawn, there was a leisurely pace to our days, with none of the sampled chores lasting very long. We had enough time to notice that lima-bean blossoms smell like lily of the valley, to ogle the 400-pound boar, and to watch the kids run from the henhouse—where they gathered beige eggs from Speckled Sussex and Brahma chickens—to the hand pump, as they quickly made themselves at home.
The museum goes to great lengths to approximate authenticity. The privy—a commodious pine structure with slits letting in sun and a sawed-out seat—was, we later learned, a modern building designed to look old. While not exactly pleasant, it was no big deal for anyone who’s experienced a primitive campsite, though we made sure to have toilet paper on hand so we wouldn’t have to resort to the bristly dried corncobs, even if they were historically accurate. Yet I couldn’t help but notice the cars that zipped by on the busy road that borders the museum’s 900 acres, or the fifties music that bounded over the meadows from some not-too-distant point. When we led the horses to pasture for the evening, a staff member warned us not to touch a wire fence: “It’s electrified,” he explained, then quickly added: “But we shouldn’t talk about that.”
The five kids paid no attention to such inconsistencies. Hannah baked biscuits and wove a lavender wand to make our linens back home smell nice. Daniel rubbed sheaves of wheat between his palms and popped the kernels into his mouth. The children even enjoyed their hour in the one-room schoolhouse—where, from September to March, first through eighth graders would have learned their lessons—especially since they got to dip pens into inkwells and try hoop-and-stick at recess.
For me, the high and low of the weekend was Saturday evening. Sticky with sweat, I was craving a shower. I was also starting to find the need to stay in character a strain (as I tried to sneak upstairs to remove my contact lenses, I was accosted by one of the staff: “Eva, are you all right?”). But as the night grew cooler, I got caught up in the evening’s entertainments, which included card games, banjo playing, and conundrums (Which American poet is three-fifths of all poets?Poe) read aloud from The National Encyclopedia of Business and Social Forms: The Laws of Etiquette. The gold-embossed 1879 volume also told fortunes. Mine: “A pleasing surprise.”
When we all gathered for the last time, on Sunday afternoon, pulling benches into a circle under a sugar maple, the interpreters had changed out of their aprons and trousers; they’d been so convincing as 19th-century characters that it was a shock to see them in shorts and T-shirts. As day visitors—including, intriguingly, a group of blue-and-black–dressed Amish, for whom Conner Prairie is an “approved” leisure activity—ambled across the covered bridge to tour the buildings, we finally learned each other’s real names and occupations (retired nurse, RV company vice president). And because we could now pose any question we wanted, Daniel asked: “How old do you have to be to work here?”
Fishers, Ind.; 317/776-6000; connerprairie.org; Weekend on the Farm program $700 for a family of four for two days and one night, including meals; held four times a year.
Here, two other places where your family can travel to an earlier era—and stay the night:
Civil War Adventure Camp at Pamplin Historical Park
Civil War buffs shoulder 10-pound muskets, march in formation, eat hardtack, sleep in a tent, and otherwise live the life of 19th-century soldiers—Union or Confederate—at the 422-acre park on one of the war’s key battlefields.
Petersburg, Va.; 804/861-2408; civilwaradventurecamp.org; rally camps $70 per person, ages 8 and up.
Move into a 17th-century house and pretend you’re British colonists at this re-created Pilgrim village—or camp out at the museum’s Wampanoag Indian site.
Plymouth, Mass.; 508/746-1622; plimoth.org. Colonial program, $600 for a six-person house; Wampanoag program, $100 per person; both options include meals and costumes.