WILLSBORO — For escaped slaves in the mid-1800s, the Underground Railroad offered freedom for any travelers who could dodge the journey’s dangers.
For $5 admission, adults and children ages 10 and older will have the chance to take that journey themselves from 6 to 9 tonight as part of the Pok-O-MacCready Outdoor Education Center’s Underground Railroad Living History event.
The event will begin at the center at 1391 Reber Road, Willsboro. The rules of the historical simulation will be explained, and Outdoor Education Center Director Brian DeGroat will hold a discussion about the topics that the simulation covers and the background of the event’s time period.
After a brief video on the history of the Underground Railroad in the North Country, participants will meet the first of many abolitionists featured in the event. The abolitionists, actually an Outdoor Education instructor, will lead participants out of the safe house and transport them by van to the 1812 Homestead.
Once at the homestead, participants will have been fully transported into the past. Spread out around the homestead will be instructors playing the roles of different Underground Railroad-era characters.
“Some may be abolitionists, some may be bounty hunters, some may be farmers tending their fields,” DeGroat said.
Participants will then act as slaves sneaking through the homestead and trying to reach lanterns that act as safe zones. At each safe zone, participants will have the chance to interpret historical documents and have discussions about their experience.
“We hope that everyone will get an idea of how people were affected during this time period and why they made some of the choices they made,” DeGroat said.
Along the way, participants will encounter different obstacles, including suspicious townspeople and bounty hunters who will capture them and take them to plead their case before the town commissioner.
Although DeGroat said bounty hunters did not often make the journey as far north as the Champlain Valley to find runaway slaves, there were still wanted bulletins spread around the region.
“There were documented accounts of neighbors going over to their neighbors’ houses and demanding to come inside because they knew there was a fugitive slave in the house,” DeGroat said.
Though DeGroat said the event strives to be historically accurate, the organizers of the event have been careful to avoid making the simulation too violent or otherwise disturbing. DeGroat said he had heard of a similar event held in a different state that had featured harsh language and simulated slave beatings.
“There certainly was some of that in the historical record, but we are not here to intimidate students or to propagate any sort of bad examples from the past,” DeGroat said.
After the homestead event, participants will return to the Outdoor Education Center to have a discussion about the simulation and what they learned from it. Linda Richardson, vice president of the the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, will give a presentation featuring stories about slaves and abolitionists who came through the North Country.
Finally, participants will enjoy marshmallows around a campfire.
Beyond teaching local history, DeGroat said he hopes the simulation will help visitors to appreciate the roles that individual people play in large historical events such as the Underground Railroad.
“History occurs everyday to ordinary people, and some of the stories we’re going to tell are ordinary people that got caught up in bigger events,” DeGroat said.