Longtime interpreter recalls love of south’s railroads, people

Dwight Gallian has been an interpreter at Conner Prairie since 2000.

By Alicia Kelly
Just over the prairie and on the other side of the White River sits a home where one of Conner Prairie’s greatest storytellers and blacksmiths lives.

From catching bull frogs in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta as a child to working on railroads that date back to the Civil War, Dwight Gallian says he has always enjoyed working with his hands.

He took after his father and his grandfather by working as a third-generation foreman on the Illinois Central Railroad, starting in the early 1970s when he was 19.

Interpreter Dwight Gallian portrays blacksmith Ben Curtis inside 1836 Prairietown.

One section of the railroad, Gallian recalls, dates back to 1861, the first year of the American Civil War. This historic section, known at the time as the old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, was situated behind a depot in Tutwiler, Miss.

“Most of the railroads have dates printed on them but that one in particular had the year 1861 on it,” he said. “It had been there ever since the start of the Civil War.”

Gallian did everything on the railroad, from maintenance to driving diesel engine locomotives.

“I could build a track and drive a train on it, too,” he said.

Thirteen years after he started working on the railroad, Illinois Central sold out.

“I always meant to get that portion of the railroad to keep,” he said. “They ripped up all of that part of the track, shipped it out and it was eventually sold for scrap, which hurt because not only was that history, it was a part of my own history.”

After the railroad company sold out, Gallian began working on what is now called the Canadian National Railway where he grew up near Clarksdale, Miss. He continued working there for four years until he toggled between other jobs, including owning his own pizza shop and working at a homecare medical house.

Gallian has worked as a blacksmith at Conner Prairie since 2000. He misses every bit of working on the railroad in the southern community he considers his true home.

“A group of older African-American men taught me about life and everything I know about working on the railroad,” he said. “That’s what I miss most. I loved every one of them and I always looked up to them.”

Gallian has lived on Conner Prairie’s property for a little more than four years and appreciates his proximity to nature.

When he isn’t portraying Prairietown blacksmith Ben Curtis or fur trader Duncan McKinnen, he is storytelling, deer hunting, making things out of leather and exploring the woods.

“I have never really liked living in town,” Gallian said. “The place I feel most comfortable is in the forest and in the woods close to nature.”