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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At Prairietown, visitors wander into any of a dozen or so buildings, including the Golden Eagle Tavern & Inn; a blacksmith forge; quarters for a doctor; studios for a weaver and a potter; and a general store. Prairietown tourists may also be waylaid by a lieutenant from the Indiana Militia, wearing a brocade uniform and attempting to conscript recruits into his unit, whose men are camped at the edge of town. (To draw attention to their presence, the troops often fire flintlock rifles in unison; the roar is deafening.)

At Liberty Corner, where it's always 1886, passersby may be tapped for a game of vintage baseball (rules call for batters to get three strikes or seven balls). At the Quaker meetinghouse, a vaudeville song-and-dance duo, Simpson & Roberts, headlines a musicale. Or visitors may help bundle newly threshed hay from the outlying fields, tossing sheaves into the back of horse-drawn wagons.

"At Conner Prairie," says Ellen M. Rosenthal, president and CEO of the museum, "visitors can watch, but they can also become involved. We don't want our interpreters just demonstrating and talking. Learning history should be fun." Conner Prairie conducts several immersion programs, including the most popular offering, "Follow the North Star" (November 6-8, 13-15 and 20-22), which enables participants to take on the role of fugitive slaves in the 1850s and '60s. "The experience can be so intense," says Dan Freas, who oversees immersion programs, "that when it's over, we do a debriefing with psychological professionals, to make sure everyone's OK."

However, simply strolling the gravel paths can offer an equally accessible route to time travel. On the day I arrived, after stopping by the Museum Center, where a barbershop quartet was performing, I picked up a map containing the day's schedule of events.

After sampling Lenape Camp, I passed the Conner Homestead, that day the site of a watermelon seed-spitting contest. I continued on the trail, past the homemade ice-cream demonstration (free samples), and entered Prairietown. After pausing at the blacksmith's, where a smithy instructed an apprentice in the art of forging coat hooks, I crossed over to Whitaker's General Store.

"Whitaker," courtly and silver-haired, was snappily attired in a pale cotton suit-vest and matching trousers, a straw dress hat on his head. On his front porch, local children dressed in period clothes hung red, white and blue bunting for the coming Independence Day holiday.

As I entered the shop, I inquired, "Do tell me, what's been selling well lately?" Mr. Whitaker walked behind his shop's wooden counter to lift sets of silver place settings from a shelf. "These have been going into all the young ladies' hope chests," he replied. "They're imported: all the way from Philadelphia."

He returned the silverware to its shelf, and with a glint in his eye, pointed out a book on the counter. "Of course," he added, "I always suggest this goes in their hope chests, too. After all, in this modern age, a girl has to keep up with the times—and knowing the contents in that book there, well, it makes any village girl more attractive as a bride. It's just been published."

Glancing down, I saw a copy of The American Frugal Housewife—and felt as if I had truly been delivered to the 19th century. With an 1833 publication date printed on the cover, I knew that in Prairietown, this helpful little tome was hot off the presses.

Freelance writer Donovan Webster is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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