Back in time: McGowans assume 19th century roles for Pokagon program

Most days, Jeff McGowan is a mild-mannered professor in Trine University’s Ketner School of Business, leading students through the maze of federal, state and corporate tax laws.

But every so often, under cover of dark, he becomes Benjamin Waterhouse, a 19th century Orland abolitionist leading escaped slaves through the maze of the Underground Railroad.

McGowan and his wife, Jan, volunteer regularly as part of Pokagon State Park’s Stories of the Underground Railroad program. Featuring a one-hour, ¾-mile night hike through the park, the event, held throughout the year, includes stories of Steuben County abolitionists and gives participants the experience of travelling through the darkness.

The final Stories of the Underground Railroad for this year will be held Friday, Oct. 18, at Pokagon State Park beginning at 8 p.m. The events are limited to 30 people. To register, email Interpretive Naturalist Nicky Ball at niball@dnr.in.gov.

Ball acts as the conductor, with the McGowans coming out along the trail to discuss their characters – Waterhouse and Mary Butler, an Orland widow who opened her home as a station on the Underground Railroad. The McGowans and Pokagon State Park seasonal interpretive naturalist Lauren Oxley, portraying Orland station house owner Susanna McGowan, use narratives they wrote based on the book With Courage and Conviction: Orland, Indiana and the Abolitionist Movement, by Michael Biesiada.

“We have a script that we have memorized about our characters and their role on the railroad,” Jeff said. “This is ‘living history,’ so we speak in present tense.”

A couple of surprises await wary travelers along the way.

“Since it is in the dark where the passengers are being transported, I come out with a lantern about halfway through, and each time I hear a few gasps, since I usually startle them,” Jeff said. “It probably looks like a bear coming out from the woods.

“Right as I finish my section, we have recorded our dog, Irish, barking, which Jan plays after sneaking up close to the group. This signifies that the passengers should be moving on, as they are being tracked.”

Oxley meets the group at end of the path.

Waterhouse took in passengers in Mud Corners, south of present-day Mongo and Brushy Prairie, and transported them to various sites in Orland. Jeff said the pious Waterhouse made no secret of his role in the Underground Railroad.

Eventually, Waterhouse was one of several men arrested and tried in an Indianapolis court for violating the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. He was the only one convicted, but was only sentenced to one hour of jail time — served in the courthouse — and a $50 fine. The people of Orland raised the money to pay the amount.

“I admire his ‘in-your-face’ view about serving God via transporting freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad,” Jeff said. “I try to portray him as a friendly, righteous man, but also unapologetic in doing what he feels is right in God's eyes.”

Butler, meanwhile, sheltered as many as 28 escaped slaves at a time. Her children helped by making food for the passengers and transporting them on to the next station.

Jan said that, in contrast to Waterhouse’s righteousness, she portrays Butler as an “empathic servant to the freedom seekers.”

“Mary describes the difficulties that freedom seekers endure, and how her Underground Railroad Station provides at least a night of sustenance and a day of rest as they make an arduous journey,” she said. “Mary also shows a bit of the strain, as she states, with relief, that neither herself nor her children have been arrested or jailed. I admire Mary greatly, and hope I do justice to her heroism.”

In addition to working with Stories of the Underground Railroad, Jan serves on the Board of the Friends of Pokagon, leads monthly bird hikes at the park, and volunteers with other programs over the summer. The couple became involved with the park when they moved to Angola earlier this year.

Jeff, who has taught at Trine since 2016, had stayed in an apartment in Angola during the week and commuted to the couple’s home in South Bend the prior two years.

“The couple of weekends Jan came to see me in Angola, we would spend most of our time at Pokagon,” he said. “We loved the park, especially the room with the fireplace as opposed to my one-bedroom studio at the time.”

“When we moved here, it seemed natural to get involved with Pokagon, as that was certainly a strong draw for us when moving out to this region, and why we decided to settle here.”

In South Bend, Jan was a longtime employee and volunteer for the St. Joseph County Parks Department. She currently is a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program at Indiana University South Bend.

“I was a park interpreter at the St. Joseph County Parks, and love the mission of guiding people to discovering the wonders of our natural and cultural history,” she said. “Volunteering at Pokagon has enabled me to continue serving that role in my new community.”

 They became involved in Stories of the Underground Railroad when Ball mentioned the program to them, and hope Pokagon State Park is eventually able to do more such programs.

“Nicky has quite an interest in doing living history items, which greatly interest me, if I can get involved in others,” Jeff said.

Photo: From left, Jeff McGowan, assistant professor in Trine University’s Ketner School of Business, his wife Jan McGowan and Lauren Oxley, seasonal interpretive naturalist at Pokagon State Park, pose in costume during a recent Stories of the Underground Railroad program at Pokagon State Park. The final program for this year will be held Oct. 18.