Staff Blog

Katie Arnold - Social Media and Interpreter
If you know Gustanna Chaney, you recognize her for her energy, compassion and spunk. Her performance as Mrs. Ward in Follow the North Star leaves a lasting impact on participants as they experience what it was like to be fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Her warm smile and encouragement, as she plays the role of a free African American woman living in 1836 Prairietown, is exactly what participants need to lift their spirits and give them hope after experiencing hostility from other characters. Chaney makes you feel safe, comforted and uplifted.

Each of the African American actors that participate in Follow the North Star brings something special to their performance and thereby the program as a whole. They add depth and spirit to the cast of characters. Chaney plays one of those characters that guests hold onto even after departing from the program. Her performance comes from a deeply emotional place; it is personal and powerful. 

Having grown up in Hopkinsville, Ky., Chaney’s family was touched by the racial consequences left by slavery. Her father lived in a segregated town where whites and blacks were not only not socially permitted to intermingle, but were forced to use different facilities – different restrooms, drinking fountains, etc. Chaney specifically remembers her father pointing these places out to her as a child. “I saw the fountains that my father had to use in town,” said Chaney. This is one of the reasons why she personally continues to participate in FNS. “I honor him and what he had to undergo through Follow the North Star. The validity of it is powerful.”

Chaney has been a part of Follow the North Star for four years. She joined after being encouraged by several people who were connected to Conner Prairie. She always plays Mrs. Ward. “I find the experience to be gratifying,” said Chaney. “The first time I went through, I learned things – at 60 years old! I learned about things that were purposely omitted from my education, like the $500 bond on runaways.” She explains that  her education of slavery was minimal when she was growing up. She never understood the true grit of the institution until she experienced this program and put the pieces together. “Slavery is so hard for people of all colors to talk about, but this is a great way to start that conversation,” said Chaney. “It’s a dark, ugly and dirty moment in our history, but it’s so important for Americans to remember. If more people went through this program or could feel the nastiness of slavery, maybe there would be less violence in the world.”

For Chaney, her father was her hero. She learned so much from his life and his guidance. If he were here now, she believes that he would say, “Sugar, that’s a good thing you’re doing.”

To participate in Follow the North Star on Nov. 14 & 15 and 20-22, call 317-776-6000. For more details, click here: Follow the North Star.
Posted: 11/14/2014 4:00:14 PM by Conner Prairie | with 0 comments

Sarah Withrow - Interpreter
All through school I found social studies to be flat. It was interesting if I could make connections, but there was no depth to most of it. I had to remember names and dates for tests and nothing more than facts. The movies teachers showed helped to put it into some form that was more entertaining, but it still lacked that reality I needed to keep me involved.

That’s where Conner Prairie comes in. As an adult I found an incredible place that brought history to life.

One of the programs at Conner Prairie with the greatest emotional and educational impact has to be “Follow the North Star.” This is an interactive program where people tour Conner Prairie’s grounds at night, acting as fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, encountering slave hunters, abolitionists and more. Participating in this program as a “plant” (a staff member included in a group to help keep people moving on the tour) and as a character, each had a different impact on me. As a plant I join our visitors as a runaway slave and endure the harshness of the characters, including their language and yelling, as well as invasion of my personal space and demeaning stories. It created that true involvement. I now have a better understanding of the fears, the stories and the attitudes of slaves, as well as the outcome of their lives.

As a character, each person has to find that “dark place” they can go to in order to create the experience for those participating. In this role you must find a part of yourself that can create the fears and attitudes that are so offensive in today’s world.

As a “debriefer” who meets with the groups at the end of the night I have had the broadest experiences. Following the outdoor encounter, I have the opportunity to lead a discussion of emotion, fact, personal stories, and to connect all this conversation to the past as well as the present. I have witnessed those who share stories of their grandparents’ attitudes and fears and how they now understand why their attitudes were so different. Others share personal stories about their lives and events including abuse that connect to what they just went through. Students often see the relationship of how others’ words can negatively affect a person’s self-concept with very negative results. Girls often better understand why their parents worry when they are not home when expected or why they are hesitant to allow them to go places alone or with other girls. Follow the North StarTeachers have returned to tell us that they now present social studies lessons in a different format allowing the students to do the research and then to present to the class in a life-like drama. There are those who see the connection to their religious beliefs and others who see themselves as those who have been the offender.

It seems that the impact of the program is based upon what each individual brings from their own past experiences to this opportunity. Some people shed tears, others quietly process while listening, and others want to talk and ask questions, and then talk more. People who repeat the program say they always find more connections. People who are in their first time visit walk away thinking about the past as well as the present. Everyone leaves thinking about their role and how they can make a difference.

This program has led one our youth interpreters to raise $18,000 for Rapha House over the past two years. This organization helps with the rehabilitation of children who have been rescued from human trafficking.

As I reflect back on the years and try to provide a simple statement to condense this, I would have to say: It is important to always keep somewhere close the knowledge that words are powerful weapons and can be used for good or bad… It is your choice.

Follow the North Star takes place on Nov. 13-15 and 20-22. Reserve your spot here:
Posted: 11/11/2014 8:47:46 AM by Conner Prairie | with 0 comments

Katie Arnold - Social Media and Interpreter
On Nov. 24, Brandon Kreisher will head to New York City with 25 other Ivy Tech Community College students to participate in an eight-day conference that simulates the work of the United Nations.

Model UN introduces students from all over the world to the world of diplomacy, negotiation and decision making. Students assume the role of ambassadors of member countries. Students from all over the world participate in the conference.

After a rigorous application process, Kreisher was one of the 26 students chosen to attend Model UN for Ivy Tech. “Dr. Payne told me that I was accepted half way through my face-to-face interview,” he said. “I accepted in a state of total disbelief.”

While at Model UN, Kreisher will train for competition in a political science class. He will learn about international politics and about the history, justice system and current political environment of Romania, the country that his team will be representing. “We will get to meet with the Romanian ambassador and talk to him about his stance on current issues that his country faces and about how he makes decisions.”

At the end of the conference, Kreisher and his team will introduce bills and debate discussions that arise. “I will be presenting bills in front of 500 people,” he said. “No pressure.”

Kreisher has worked as an interpreter at Conner Prairie since August of 2011. Originally from Indianapolis, he lives in Hancock County with his family. He is a graduate of Mount Vernon High School and hopes to eventually become a full-time police officer.
Posted: 10/30/2014 4:56:54 PM by Conner Prairie | with 0 comments

Kim McCann
It’s that time of year. There’s a nip in the air. Green trees are beginning to flame yellow, orange and red. And pumpkin spice is everywhere.

Ask anyone today what a ghost is and you’ll probably get a pretty general consensus – a ghost is the unsettled spirit of a deceased person. And folks will probably be able to describe one – even if they’ve never seen one or even believe in them. While nearly every culture holds stories and folklore of specters, the firm depiction we hold to today is relatively new, formed by aspects of religion, nature, ad hoc science, superstition and literary allowance.

In the 19th century, near-universal ideas about what ghosts look like, what they can do and what they are began to form. Aided by the innovation of the steam-powered printing press and a more literate society, oral stories and cautionary tales starring wispy wraiths and otherworldly visitations gained widespread distribution and a following. Authors like Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens were pros at bringing up gooseflesh.

The industrial revolution brought people out of the countryside and into cities, taking them a step away from the reality of harvest time and its cycle of death and rebirth and the seasonal influence of real survival. But such inherent paradigms are not easily shifted.

When the overland telegraph connected the east and west coasts of the United States in 1861, people’s ideas about the ability of disembodied communication went wild. If you could suddenly communicate with someone halfway around the world, could people actually communicate with someone beyond the known world? Some people, desperate to connect to a loved one on to the other side, attended table tapping sessions, sought out mediums and conducted séances.

The Civil War left its mark on supernatural belief as well. Lives and loves taken away tragically and without closure created restless spirits and a plethora of pining relatives left behind. An era of deep and intense mourning practices followed, bringing with it an intimacy of connectedness to death and the dead.

As camera technology advanced and developing processes improved, spirit photography became wildly popular. William Mumler famously photographed Mary Todd Lincoln with a shammed ghostly Abraham behind her, his near transparent hands on her shoulders. Such images helped to solidify our modern perceptions of specters and spooks and brought paranormal acceptance into the mainstream.

Is it any surprise, then, that at Conner Prairie, where we love to engage our visitors in the past and its influence on the present, thoughts turn this time of year to things that go bump in the night? Autumn after all holds the triduum observance of All Hallow’s Even, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, when people are reminded of life, death and what comes after and how the veil between what is and what will be thins like sunlight with the coming winter.
On Oct. 30, Conner Prairie will host its third annual Ghost Walk. Once the sun goes down, you can take part in a guided walk around the Conner prairie grounds and hear storytellers recount creepy local legends, ghostly happenings and true history. I’ll be on hand to once again recount the gory – and true – tale of Wade Hampton “Hamp” West who in the 1880s was tried and convicted on charges of gruesome body snatching right here in Fishers, Ind. I’ll be telling this tale in the Prairietown graveyard. You’ll also hear the paranormal history of Heady Hollow, get inside details on some unexplained things that employees have encountered in a few of our historic buildings and much more of the macabre.

Do ghosts haunt Conner Prairie? Come and decide for yourself – if you dare.

Posted: 10/24/2014 4:26:52 PM by Conner Prairie | with 0 comments

For the first time in nearly 1,000 years, Conner Scairie is leaderless after its mayor, Lord Moldywart, accidentally turned himself into a rabbit with a transfiguration spell.

According to Lord Moldywart’s spokesgoblin, Henry Beetlebiter, the Mayor retired to his dungeon on Wednesday afternoon after a busy morning transforming his enemies into animals.   The former Mayor sat down to enjoy his favorite snack of stale popcorn and stinky cheese when a kernel of popcorn became irretrievably  lodged between his teeth.  Mr. Beetlebiter reports that Lord Moldywart then made the fateful decision to use the pointy tip of his wand in an effort to extricate it.  The wand, which still contained leftover magic from the dark wizard’s last spell, accidentally went off, rendering the once supreme ruler a helpless hare. 

While reactions to Lord Moldywart’s unfortunate end have been mixed, there’s been no time wasted in mayoral candidates stepping up for your vote! Several of Conner Scairie’s most illustrious citizens announced their candidacy to replace him including the Headless Horseman, Holly Ween, Dr. Acula, Ed the mad scientist, Harry Howler and Beautisha. Meet them at Headless Horseman October 23-26 and then come back to the cauldron to place your vote.   

Read all about it here:
Posted: 10/22/2014 10:00:03 AM by Conner Prairie | with 0 comments

Recent Posts
A Moment for Mrs. Ward
Reflecting on Follow the North Star
Conner Prairie Interpreter at Simulated United Nations Conference
True Tale of Gruesome Body Snatching Oct. 30
Popcorn to Blame