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Taking the Kids: Time-Traveling Back in History at Conner Prairie

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Media Services on

The ragged red cloth hanging from the door handle was the signal that we'd be safe, but we weren't sure who to trust. We sent just one from our group -- there were a dozen of us hidden in the trees -- to the door of the yellow-and-green house. "A friend of a friend sent us," she whispered when a middle-aged Quaker woman with a kind face answered.

"You're safe here," she said, quickly ushering us inside, warning us to be quiet and giving us cornbread. We were hungry, tired and frightened -- especially as those who hunted us fired shots outside. "We do not believe God would want anyone to be slaves," the woman said. "We are members of the society of friends," her sister added. "You can count on friends to help you."

Welcome to a stop on the Underground Railroad. Historians estimate that anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 slaves started their journey to freedom from the South during the first half of the 19th century, helped along the way by abolitionists, runaway slaves, freed blacks and Quakers. (For more on the Underground Railroad, visit (

It would have taken runaway slaves three or more years to reach freedom and a new life; less than half would make it.

Here at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park (, the terrific living history museum outside Indianapolis, a Smithsonian affiliate that focuses on 19th-century Indiana, the journey takes us 90 minutes, starting with our escape from an owner who plans to sell us "back South."

Fall is a terrific time to visit a living history museum like Conner Prairie, whether kids are going to work in the garden, helping to cook, do laundry or play 19th-century games in 1836 Prairietown, joining Hoosier volunteers defending their state from confederate raiders in 1863 or learning the language of the Lenape, the Native Americans who lived in Indiana from 1795 to 1820. I love the way Conner Prairie melds hands-on activities with costumed interpreters with 21st-century technology to engage kids. (They can figure out how to defend their town from confederate raiders using interactive maps or "meet" those who lived through that era via giant video screens. "You get to do so much more than just look at stuff," said 11-year-old Emilia Grunden. "Definitely not boring!"


"It's great the way the kids can interact with the interpreters," added Keisha Wright, here with her two kids from Fort Myers, Fla. "They go home and look in their schoolbooks and can relate to this part of history."

This place is affordable too ($14 for adults and $9 for kids 2 to 12) -- not much more than a movie! (Read more about my visit here and to Indianapolis in my trip diaries at

On three October weekends, a hayride will bring you face to face with the Headless Horseman. And once you've recovered your wits, you can join in the Halloween fun with a punkin'-a-pult -- a pumpkin-flinging catapult -- spooky karaoke, a scarecrow competition, lessons in ghost hunting and more

The museum has just gotten a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new interactive science experiences into exhibits that will serve as a model for museums around the country.


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