When you walk onto Jack McGowan’s farm only a few miles outside of Mankato, you step into a completely different world — one where cowboys and medieval knights live in harmony, where pirates tease the dour-faced Temperance Lady, where trolls can be vanquished through the magic of fairy dust. Huck Finn plays pranks on Theodore Roosevelt, while a Revolutionary War spy presses a secret message into your hand and breathlessly asks you to deliver it to the next safe house. On one corner of the property, a crowd gathers to watch Jack himself launch a pumpkin from his homemade catapult, and across the way, a grinning mad scientist shows off his giant death ray. There’s a petting zoo full of bleating animals and the world’s fastest beaver skinner showing off his trade.
It’s all part of History Fest, a four-day extravaganza that gives kids and adults alike the chance to see history — real and imagined — in a whole new way.
“When a kid sees history this way, they remember it, and it’s not boring,” McGowan explained. “It’s fun.”According to McGowan, History Fest started when an area school asked if they could use McGowan’s property to host a mini Renaissance Festival for their school carnival. It was a huge hit, and more schools wanted to participate the next year. Eventually, McGowan decided to expand the festival from medieval times to all of history and invite any school that wanted to participate. That was about 25 years ago, and now, the festival draws roughly 4,000 kids every year from across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.
It takes a lot of manpower to put on such a detailed event every year, and that’s where volunteer coordinator Julie Hinicker comes in. Hinicker has been involved in History Fest for nearly 20 years, both as a reenactor and as a volunteer. Nowadays, she helps organize more than 250 volunteers and reenactors.
“I will feature any era of history that I can find,” she said. “Any person who comes to me with an idea with an idea, I’ll do it. I don’t know of any place else in the area where you can take a child and have them see something as simple as a garden and as complicated as how the Vikings dyed their yarn. These kids get to see things they’ve never seen before and learn that learning can be fun.”
According to Hinicker, the medieval knights are always a popular attraction, as well as professional pirate reenactor Minnesota Jack Sparrow and his crew. And while some of the festival’s colorful performers aren’t exactly “historical”—such as the friendly fairies and the mischievous Huck Finn—Hinicker says that’s all part of the charm of Jack McGowan’s farm.
“We have a little bit of the Irish mystical spattered in,” she said. “How can you be Jack McGowan and not have that? If children aren’t exposed to the magical and the fantastical, how will they learn to use their imaginations?”
Mankato resident Susan Hynes has volunteered at the festival for several years now, continually reprising her love-to-hate character of the “Temperance Lady.” Dourly dressed all in black, Hynes carries a sign warning of the “evils of drink” and also a hatchet that she sometimes threatens to use to chop down the local saloon if they start selling anything other than sarsaparilla.
“It’s been a great character for me to play,” Hynes said. “I’m teaching about history in a fun way. You can do both at the same time. It’s the best combination. I used to think history was dull and boring. I’d never think that now.”
“I get to work with the most wonderful people in Minnesota,” McGowan said. “They come and they care about kids and education, making a kid smile and learn at the same time. You take what comes down the pike and you put it out there, and if they entertain the kids and make a kid think, that’s all that matters.”
History Fest runs from Oct. 10-14, with the first three days reserved for school kids and the last day open to the public.
For more info
What: History Fest
Where: 20002 Hawkeye Lane, Mankato
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Oct. 14
Cost: $5 per person (kids five and under are free)
Interested in volunteering?
According to Hinicker, History Fest is still in need of more volunteers, especially reenactors and a few people who could volunteer all four days. Volunteers should be 12 years old or older. For more information about volunteering, visit the festival’s website, www.historyfestmankato.com.
By Grace Webb