By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Visitors to Mankato’s annual History Fest will get a chance to belly up to the bar for a cold one.
The newest attraction at this year’s festival is the Sarsaparilla Saloon, which will feature cold mugs of 1919 Root Beer for the more than 3,000 kids that come through History Fest each year. Jack McGowan built it himself, like he’s built just about everything else at his famed McGowan’s Farm.
“It’s a saloon!” McGowan exclaimed, blowtorch in one hand and a newly created handle for a wood-burning stove in the other as he completed finishing touches. “It was part of the Old West.”
Back in the Old West, he said, there was always a saloon. But McGowan’s not using it to teach kids that drinking is a part of everyday life. He’s using it to teach kids about music.
In the Sarsaparilla Saloon, McGowan has filled the place with items and personality as unique and McGowan himself. Bar stools with tops made out of tractor seats, antique pistols on the walls, wanted posters that greet people as they come in the door with the likes of Billy the Kid, the Younger Brothers and Jesse James.
And along one wall of the saloon is, of course, a piano.
“These saloons always had pianos,” McGowan says. “And that’s how I’m bringing music into it.”
For McGowan, music isn’t just a hobby or something to do. It’s an integral part of his existence.
In nearly every building on his compound — which sees about 15,000 people come through every year for company picnics, wedding receptions or other functions — there sits a piano. And every one of them, he said, gets used during History Fest.
Among the History Fest “portrayers” are the Swanson family. They come in from South Dakota and display all kinds of skills, such as the gentleman who can crack whips in both hands at the same time.
But they also bring music. McGowan said two of the Swanson sons will spend their time walking among the kids at History Fest with violins.
“They’ll just walk around and play the blasted things,” he said. “For me, music is what makes us human.”
History Fest started Wednesday with group visits. The festival is open to the public on Saturday.
This year McGowan got a little help from Minnesota State University intern Veronica Wagner. She’s helped McGowan on about a dozen different projects and suggested to the MSU’s Department of Recreation Parks and Leisure Services that they establish a more permanent relationship with McGowan.
McGowan says he’s hoping an arrangement can be made to have MSU students help manage McGowan’s Farm.
Most of Wagner’s work, though, has been on History Fest, and McGowan said anyone coming can expect the same thrills as in year’s past.
Also new this year is the General Store, where people can purchase snacks.