Outdoor Museum Relives the Settling of Indiana

Charnes is a free-lance writer living in Oak Park, Ill

Rated "one of the 10 best places to relive America's past" by Good Housekeeping magazine, along with such landmarks as Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and Michigan's Greenfield Village, Conner Prairie recreates the primitive atmosphere of 1836 Indiana.

Just six miles northeast of Indianapolis, Conner Prairie, an outdoor history museum, depicts the common endeavors of the first generation of Indiana settlers.

Costumed guides reflect the mannerisms, attitudes and values of the day in first-person interpretations, portraying former villagers.

Surrounded by bolts of calico, buttons and thread, nails and implements, a youthful James Whitaker, the storekeeper's son, says, "I can't help the high price of coffee--20 cents a pound."

He tells a customer: "This tea service, imported from England, is of fine bone china. It'll run you $6.50. That's expensive. Don't reckon I'll sell much of them. When I purchased the dishes at a Cincinnati jobber's, my father warned me not to waste money on frivolities."

Practical Pottery

At the edge of town, Isaac Baker and his bride run the pottery store that supplies the village with practical items such as pitchers and covered jars. He considers his cabin "a real fine house. It has a wood floor. Lucinda here is used to a dirt floor."

Stationed before an open hearth, a housewife dressed in typical 1830s attire brushes away flies as she prepares dinner.

"There's not much you can do about all these flies," she says. "They do fine by themselves. Indeed it's hot, but if I don't have a fire, I don't get to cook. You gotta cook if you want to eat, and my boys work hard and sure do get hungry."

At the Golden Eagle Inn, a bed is 12 1/2 cents a night, meals are 25 cents, room and board $2 a week. There, travelers exchange news about faraway places, while the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread and mincemeat pies wafts through the kitchen doorway.

A guest, glad to rest a spell, shakes his head in dismay, complaining: "There's no more state land nearby and privately owned land is going for $5 an acre."

Pegs and Timbers

The bar, which smells like a barn, originally was erected in Clifton County, Ind., in 1832. It was dismantled, brought to Conner Prairie and reconstructed with wooden pegs to fasten the huge timbers.

Down the street, Doc Campbell, who compounds his own medicine, allows that for occasional surgery he uses whiskey for the men and opium tea for the women. "Then I just hold them down till it's all over."

For the decorating of Campbell's residence--there's a grand piano in the parlor--research preceded what might appear to be an arbitrary decision. Paint for the rooms was based on colors advertised in Indianapolis newspapers during the 1830s. Wallpaper also reflects the period.

Encompassing 288 acres--including a wooded area, the White River, a prairie, a natural amphitheater and a nature trail--Conner Prairie was founded in 1964 by the late Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical heir who donated the William Conner home and surrounding farmland to Earlham, a liberal-arts college in Richmond, Ind.

Authentic Furnishings

Prairietown, Conner Prairie's 19th-Century village, consists of 39 structures moved from former Indiana sites. The mansion of William Conner, a prominent frontiersman, land owner, trader and member of the Indiana Legislature who came from Ohio in the early 1800s, also was moved to Conner Prairie.

Built on its present foundation in 1823, the home--listed on the National Register of Historic Places--is furnished authentically, including Conner's game table, his horsehair sofa and his chairs.

On the stairway landing stands an imposing grandfather clock, circa 1830. According to the guide: "It keeps good time, is set once a week, on Monday." A delicate sampler, cross-stitched by Martha E. Rust in 1822, hangs in the hallway.

Almost 100 years old, the bright applique quilt in the master bedroom looks as if it had just been completed. The trundle bed, too, is spread with an outstanding quilt, a bold floral design on a gleaming white background, made in 1850.

Wool From the Herd

On the Conner estate are three buildings brought here to show what may have existed on Conner property. The Loom House displays textile arts. Woven bed ticking, woolen rugs and fancy coverlets are fashioned there for the entire museum.

Visitors watching the fabric being woven can look out the window at the plant that colored the yarn and see the sheep that produced the wool.

Down a path, the Spring House, a stone reservoir with walls, is perfect for storing perishables and stays cool even during hot summer days.

At the Still, several yards beyond, spectators can see the process by which early settlers distilled corn into whiskey. One bushel of corn could be converted into three gallons of corn liquor.

Gallery for Exhibits

The newly opened $9-million Museum Center, with an exterior of Indiana rubblestone and a bright copper roof, offers exhibits in a 3,000-square-foot gallery. The current exhibit, a series of sketches called "Drawn to Indiana," will run through July 17.

In addition to a central gallery for permanent exhibitions, the center includes a 100-seat theater, 3,000-volume research library, sky-lit atrium, classrooms and studios for blacksmiths, potters, woodworkers and restorers.

On the calendar are year-round special programs: Conner Prairie by candlelight (during Christmas season), winter hearthside suppers in front of the dining room fireplace at the Conner home (January through March), a Mother's Day fashion show featuring traditional 19th-Century costumes, and a hot-air balloon festival (May 27).

Old-Fashioned Sport

Festivities for the Fourth of July, as celebrated in 1836 when the only national holiday was Independence Day, are full of old-fashioned sport: political orations, pie-eating and seed-spitting contests, checkers championships, sack races, brass band, barbershop quartet and a fireworks display.

On selected weekends, demonstrations of folk art and needlework, plus an old-time spelling bee with words taken from Noah Webster's 1831 speller highlight aspects of pioneer days.

During the summer, the Indianapolis Symphony performs concerts on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

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Conner Prairie, six miles north of Interstate 465 at the Allisonville Road exit, is open April through November, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, closed Tuesdays in April and November.

For more information, contact Conner Prairie, 13400 Allisonville Road, Noblesville, Ind. 46060, (317) 776-6000.

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