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Conner Prairie


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    conner prairie map
     Conner Prairie calls itself an interactive history park. I'd use the term living history museum. It is located just northeast of Indianapolis, is one of the largest attractions in the region, and one of the most-visited outdoor museums in the country.

     The site has a history dating back to the early nineteenth century when William Conner lived in a log cabin near the White River. He made a living trading furs with the Native Americans, and had a Native American wife, daughter of a chief, and six children. Conner was a skilled interpreter and scout, who assisted in negotiating many treaties with Native American tribes.  One of those treaties resulted in the Delaware tribe's removal to west of the Mississippi. His wife and children moved west; he remained in Indiana. Conner quickly remarried and moved into the white world by building a large brick house in 1823 that became the social center of the area, even becoming the political center of newly-formed Hamilton County. He was a successful businessman, politician, and a noted part of the state's early history.

    Conner died in 1855. The house changed hands several times until 1934 when it and the surrounding lands were purchased for development of a living museum to retain American heritage through historical re-enactments.  Since then it has developed into a top living museum that showcases Indiana history. The museum is a Smithsonian affiliate.

    William Conner House in Conner Prairie
    William Conner House, front door is actually on other side facing the prairie.

     The title says the park is about 1836 Indiana history. It is, but that is misleading. The earliest and best-known part of the park, Prairietown, is all about 1836 Indiana history, but now there are many other themes across the prairie. To start with, the original William Conner House, one of the oldest brick houses in the state, still stands and is a highlight and center of the park. It is full of history, re-enactors, and lots of reproduced artifacts. They are not original so that the displays can be interactive, it's a very "touchy-feely place. What appears to be the front from the park is actually the rear. The true front is the side of the house that overlooks the 200-acre White River floodplain (the "prairie") from a bluff. Early visitors would have arrived from the river, not a parking lot. Nearby is the loom house and heirloom garden.

    gardenof william conner house in Conner Prairie
    There are surprises around every corner, like the lush herb garden.

    1836 Prairietown

     The town is full of characters, literally. All in proper period costumes and all remaining in character at all times. Time of day matters, they will be doing what would naturally occur at that time. Unlike many living museums, this one seemed to have a full array of inhabitants.  We were there on a weekday and were surprised to see the town fully-populated. Other living museums seem to use volunteers that mostly work on weekends.  Some of the people you are likely to meet are:

     Doc Campbell and his wife will welcome you to Prairietown.  He founded the town and wields influence and power and is something of a social elitist. He started Prairie town as an investment and is even rumored to have married Mrs. Campbell for her money. Because of his role in the town, many residents owe him money and resent him. He has plenty of land for sale to the public and may encourage you to settle in Prairietown.

     Mrs. Zimmerman, a widow, operates the Golden Eagle Inn for Dr. Campbell. She doesn't always agree with the good doctor, but will never say anything to jeopardize her job while he is within earshot. She lives in the inn with her sons, daughter, and daughter-in-law. The family moved to Indiana from Pennsylvania and brought much of their German heritage with them. 

    Golden Eagle Inn in Conner Prairie
    The Golden Eagle Inn is operated by Mrs. Zimmerman who likes to gossip.

      The Whitakers run the general store. You must be friendly with him to get a good deal. The store contains goods from all over the world. Mr. Curtis is the town blacksmith. This is a crucial part of the town, as his skills keep the town in iron products and iron products in repair.  His family is Methodists and abstains from hard spirits and the family does not think singing – outside of the church – to be proper. The forge keeps him busy, so at times he can't talk to you, as he is dealing with red hot iron. The pottery shop is run by Isaac and Jonathan Barker. They learned the trade from their father.  The Barker cabin is nearby.  

    craftsman's house in Conner Prairie
    The shops in Prairietown all have working craftsmen, willing to discuss their trades and lives.
     Sgt. Hasting's cabin may make you feel sorry for the poor man. He fought with General William Henry Harrison at Tippecanoe in 1811 and later became a farmer.  He lost the farm and is now a pauper maintained by the county. The cabin is so meagerly furnished that he doesn't even have a bed, only a mattress on the floor. There is a one-room log schoolhouse.  Students attend school for three months each year – November thru January – six days a week, from 7:00 a.m.to 4:00 p.m. There is also a carpenter shop. Mr. McClure was making axe handles while we were there.

    interior of cabin  in Conner Prairie
    All the cabins in Prairietown and elsewhere are furnished to the time period.

     Prairietown must be the highlight of Conner Prairie for most people.  Every craftsman and tradesman was working while we were there. They all explained what they were doing, and often added personal insights of their lives and interactions with the other citizens of the town. When we expressed interest, we even got a tour of the smokehouse. Yes, there were hams in there!

    1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana  

    In the Civil War Journey you cross a covered bridge and enter 1863. In the summer of 1863 Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry swept up from Tennessee into Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. The troops seized steamboats and crossed the Ohio River into Indiana. Their goal was to cause a diversion and pull Union troops away from other areas, or perhaps to rally the support of Southern sympathizers in the North. They attacked the town of Corydon, which eventually surrendered. After plundering Corydon, the troops raided Dupont, Versailles, and other small towns before moving into Ohio. It was July 13 when Morgan's Raiders ransacked Dupont.

    covered bridge with balloon overhead in Conner Prairie
    The covered bridge that leads into the Civil War Journey, with the 1859 Balloon Voyage
     in the background. For scale, the balloon is far in the distance and is 105 feet in
    diameter and rises 350 feet above the ground (tethered).

     A covered bridge leads to Dupont, Indiana in July 1863, shortly after Morgan's raid. You see and hear about the raid from the locals. At the Dry Goods Store someone from the Porter Family will describe the raid.  They have a copy of a telegram from the governor advising citizens to barricade the town and defend from the rebels.

    We mentioned we'd come up from South Carolina; the Porter's were none too friendly after that.  You might also meet Albert Cheatham, who fled slavery early in the war by heading north. There is even a chance you'll meet General Morgan while on the Civil War journey.  The schoolhouse has been taken over by the Union Quartermaster and serves as a temporary telegraph office for the Union troops. There is a field hospital. The most impressive part of the journey is a multi-media presentation, including holograms, that give details of the raid. It ends with a cannon blast in a dark room that blows a hole through the wall. Sunlight filters into the room through the cannonball hole; what a way to end a story!

    schoolhouse ruins in Conner Prairie
    The smoldering ruins in downtown Dupont, Ind. after Morgan's raid.

    Lenape Indian Camp and 1859 Balloon Voyage

     Around another corner is a Lenape, or Delaware, Indian camp. It is a chance to learn something of Native American culture. It includes trading post, wigwams, and a cabin. We spent time learning about Native American beadwork. The 1859 Balloon voyage leads you to the middle of Lafayette, Indiana to explore the history of manned flight, discover the rigors of airmail by balloon, and get a close look at all the work required to lift a balloon into the sky. The culmination of this experience is a chance to step into the gondola of a tethered balloon and be lifted 350 feet over Conner Prairie. 

    wigwam and cabin in Conner Prairie
    Wigwam and cabin at Lenape Indian Camp.

     More for the kids is a treetop outpost, with a treetop workshop, treehouse, nature walk, and lookout. There is also an animal encounter barn with very tame animals for the kids to meet.  There is lots of other stuff for kids to do at the park, both inside and outside. The food at the Café on the Common turned out to be great. It is a huge place and you can easily spend a day there and still feel like you missed something. As living museums go, this one would get a grade of "A."
    Authors: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. His wife, Patricia, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in history.
    For more information:
    Conner Prairie Interactive History Park Home

    New York Times Review of Park



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