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Playfully Preserving History

August 10, 2008
By MICHAEL GASSETT — Journal Sports Writer

By MICHAEL GASSETT - Journal Sports Writer

MANKATO - Imagine raising eight kids without a television to keep them entertained.

Jack McGowan did and his imagination led to a kid-friendly oasis on his family farm.

Article Photos

Jack McGowen built two water pumpers with firehoses that children use to put out a fire which is fueled by a propane tank on the other side of the building facade.

What started as a way to keep his own kids busy has turned into a pioneer adventure for children of all ages.

"We had eight kids and no relatives want you to visit when you have that many kids so you stay home," McGowan said. "They played here. They brought all of their friends and it really just grew from there. I just gradually started building more stuff."

McGowan said that it all started when his children wanted a zip line, so he built one.

"I was going to build them a slide on the hill," he says, "but I couldn't afford the steel. I had the cables and I thought this would do. And it has been a big hit."

McGowan said the farm used to have sheep, pigs and other animals that the family would care for.

"I would work the kids until noon every day," he said. "Then in the afternoon we played. They were in the river, on bicycles, they were always doing something. They were always playing."

Now the giant playground is open to kids of all ages. Church groups, boy scouts and elementary schools have been to McGowan's to camp or have fun but they always learn something. The Mankato Area YMCA has been coming to McGowan's farm since about 1983.

"I am told that parents of some of the kids that come out now used to come here when they were kids," McGowan said. "It makes a man realize how old a duck he is."

Now he has all kinds of different toys to enlighten any child's imagination. When visitors first enter the farm they will pull up to a fully functional replica log cabin that McGowan built with the help from people of Sentence to Serve.

The logs were originally power-line poles from St. Peter that were removed after the 1998 tornado.

The back porch of the cabin overlooks a grove of trees and the banks of the Blue Earth River in the distance.

Inside is pioneer era clothing for children to play dress up in. There are two wood stoves one for heating and another for cooking. An old piano sits in one corner, a log table sits in the middle of the room underneath a massive chandelier - that McGowan built himself - flanked with oil burning lamps.

The chandelier, McGowan said, was too big to fit through the door so they had to move it in before the roof was put on. It is on a winch so it can be lowered and the lamps can be lit.

There is a loft that overlooks the room and holds two sets of bunk beds.

Next to the cabin is the beginning of another structure that McGowan says will eventually be a building for pottery for History Fest, which is the biggest draw of all to McGowan's farm.

What started as a renaissance festival for Franklin School in Mankato is now entering its 13th year.

Children get hands on learning experiences that will make learning about history fun. As McGowan says, "it's all about the kids and playfully preserving history."

The New Ulm Battery comes and shoots its cannon, he has some civil war reinactors and 17th century Scottish reinactors. A group from the cities comes down and sets up its own village with black smiths, weavers, spinners and musicians. There are also Old West groups, belly dancers, fire eaters and jugglers.

"There aren't too many places around this area where kids can just be kids," McGowan said. "That's why I do this."

History Fest takes place the second weekend of October each year and this year will run from the 9th-11th.

"This is what happens when you live out here with no tv," McGowan said. "You start thinking and you come up with a lot of ideas."

Those ideas have led to a playground filled with activities to open up each child's imagination. The learning starts on a path under a canopy of old growth trees that is set up like a medieval carnival's midway.

There is a tomahawk throwing area where kids can throw hatchets at wooden targets. McGowan will also give the aspiring throwers tips on technique. In case you are wondering, the proper way to throw the ax is to take seven paces from the target and turn around. Take aim and throw the tomahawk overhand like a baseball.

The next stop on the path is a strong-man bell, where you swing a heavy hammer and try to ring a bell at the top.

Other things on the path include: big foot shoes where children, grouped in pairs, strap planks to their feet and race another team. There are stilts to walk with, a jacobs ladder to climb, plus oversized spools that when set on its side kids try and walk on and keep the spool moving.

"Have you ever played soccer on a pair of stilts?," McGowan asks. "We have. It didn't work too well but it sure was a lot of fun."

There are modified wheelbarrows for racing, saw horses that resemble cows for calf roping and a two-person saw to cut logs. Sometimes there is a fire pit going so McGowan can stick an iron in the fire and brand the cut off pieces of log with a shamrock. And one of the most popular stops for girls is the box of dragon tears, where children dig through sand to find pieces of polished glass.

Other interesting stops on the path include an oversized croquet set made with large mallets and bowling balls. There is also a contraption that McGowan calls a piano that he made from recycled metal cylinders. The cylinders are cut to a certain length so that when they are struck the tone matches the notes of a piano. The cylinders are even painted black and white to match the keys with the corresponding notes painted above each one.

But probably the most entertaining and tiring stop on the tour is the old time fire engine. McGowan built two pump fire wagons and fashioned a pump to take water out of the Blue Earth River and the children - usually four on each side of the wagon - pump the handles to put out a fire that McGowan sets in the windows of a house facade.

"I just thought it was a good idea one night," McGowan said about building the fire engine. "It took me three weeks to build these two [fire wagons]. City Hall has one - they wouldn't let me get near it to measure anything. I sat outside City Hall all day long to figure out how to do it."

That's the end of the trail but not the end of the fun. McGowan built a wooden swinging bridge over a small ravine that overlooks the river. The legend is that a troll protects the bridge and it lives in an underground tunnel that was originally installed as a drainage system for McGowan's sheep barn.

There is a trebuchet, which is a type of catapult that is designed for hurling large stones during war time. McGowan uses it to launch rocks into the river.

McGowan also hosts weddings at his farm. His old sheep barn is turned into a wedding hall lined with tables. The head table is an old bowling alley on wheels so it can be moved around. He has an old horse trailer with its side cut off that can be used as a stage which is placed in front of the side of a hill that forms a natural amphitheater.

He built a courtyard near the sheep barn with a lattice roof and McGowan has planted grapevines that have now mostly covered the lattice for shade.

For more information on History Fest go to Or for information on planing a trip to McGowan's farm call 507-388-3361 or 507-625-5345.



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