Back to the Frontier

At Conner Prairie, Indiana, living history is the main event

Young guests and living history staffers unload hay. (Shawn Spence/Conner Prairie)
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Inside a log cabin on the Indiana frontier, a rugged-looking man in a rumpled linen tunic, trousers of rough homespun and heavy black boots sat at a crude table piled high with pelts. He looked up as I stepped inside.

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"Welcome," he said. "What furs do you have to trade today?"

Just outside, a fire smoldered near two bark-and-reed huts, the dwellings of local Lenape Indians. In a nearby clearing, a deer hide, dangling inside a wooden frame used for skinning and stretching, dried in the sun. A log shed next to the cabin housed a bark canoe, hung from the rafters.

Only 40 minutes earlier, I had been driving in an air-conditioned car, radio blaring, cellphone at the ready. Now, in backwoods along the White River—only 15 miles northeast of downtown Indianapolis—I had wandered into McKinnen's wilderness trading post (c. 1816). It was, for the trader "McKinnen" and me, all in a day's role-play at Conner Prairie, an 850-acre living-history museum in Fishers, Indiana. Conner Prairie re-creates the everyday life of 19th-century settlers in the Old Northwest Territory (roughly present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota).

McKinnen's trading post was stocked with everything a backwoodsman could want—Hudson's Bay blankets, flintlock rifles, hurricane lanterns, leg-hold traps, trinkets, strings of beads and hanging sheaves of dried and braided tobacco leaves. McKinnen fingered the furs on his table, beginning with a stack of glossy brown pelts. "Perhaps you have brought some pelts of beaver for me?" he inquired. "The beaver has thick and slightly oily fur, very good for warmth and repelling water. It's the height of fashion now." He moved on. "Or you have these, from the otter?"

"I have none at all," I replied.

McKinnen paused theatrically and glared. "Sir," he said at last in mock exasperation. "I am compelled to ask: If you don't want to trade...what brings you here?"

This question, at least, I could answer. I had arrived at McKinnen's doorstep to investigate an attraction that brings more than 200,000 visitors here each year from April to October. (Of the nation's living-history museums, only Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg boasts a larger annual attendance, at some 760,000.) Across Conner Prairie's rolling hills and fields, gravel trails link four thematic areas: the Lenape Camp, as the McKinnen post is officially known (c. 1816); William Conner Homestead (1823); Prairietown (1836); and Liberty Corner (1886). At each, staffers in period costumes invite spectators to join in activities from weaving to milking cows.

William Conner, a wilderness trader who prospered on the Indiana frontier in the early 1800s, was the first landowner. In 1934 the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical tycoon and philanthropist Eli Lilly purchased the property. A self-described "Hoosier nationalist," Lilly restored the house to its former glory, intending, he told the Indianapolis News in 1935, to "give future generations historical understanding not to be found in a book." Over the next three decades, Lilly scoured the Midwest for authentic implements and outbuildings. He transported log cabins, a springhouse, a loom house and a barn to the farm. In 1964, the 78-year-old Lilly, who had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on the project and envisioned a full-scale living-history museum, opened the restored estate to the public. That same year, he entered an endowment partnership with nearby Earlham College to establish, manage and expand the Conner Prairie Living History Museum. (Lilly died in 1977.) By the mid-1970s, Prairietown had been erected; the Victorian village of Liberty Corner rose from the hayfields by 2002. Among the oldest structures on the property, the cabins of the Lenape trading camp date from the 1830s. (The trading camp was expanded in 2007.)

Today, Lenape Camp staffers, some of whom are Lenape themselves, enact the part of Native Americans, encouraging visitors to tan hides or try their hands at traditional games. Lead interpreter Michael Pace is a Lenape tribesman. He is also the great-great-great-nephew of William Conner, who married a Pace aunt named Mekinges around 1800. "But that's not why I work there every summer," he says. "I do that to keep our language and tribal practices alive and to pass them along to visitors."


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