Thursday, June 16, 2016

Living History Museum Conner Prairie

Courtesy of Conner Prairie Interactive
Guests at 1836 Prairietown play a game of hoop and stick.

LIVING HISTORY: Conner Prairie offers visitors a look at life in the 1800s

The Conner Prairie Interactive History Park is tucked away in the northeast Indianapolis suburb of Fishers, Ind. The park is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and has been rated one of the top five living-history museums in the United States.

We are fans of re-enactors and situations where we can experience these actors reliving historical events. The re-enactors staffing the park were among the most realistic groups we have ever seen.

A lathe sits in the background while a woodworker makes table legs at the 1836 Prairietown of the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

A blacksmith works to make various items needed for the park in his shop at the 1836 Prairietown of the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

Courtesy of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

Guests at 1836 Prairietown play various games and activities, including hoop and stick, walking on stilts and jump-rope.

They provide visitors a combination of experiences much like Disney World, except everything is based on the reality of life in an American country village in the 1800s.

In the largest section of the park, the 1836 Prairietown, the re-enactors performed in 12 buildings from the time period. They were surrounded by original objects or those made in the traditional manner at the local blacksmith shop. What made the experience so enchanting was the degree to which the re-enactors are able to temporarily become people from that time.

We explored the Lenape Indian Camp, the smallest area of the park, which includes a cabin trading post, pioneer cabin and a wigwam. One of many treats during our visit was interacting with an authentic member of the Delaware tribe who spoke the original Delaware language.

He recounted the many moves his tribe made as settlers kept encroaching on their territory; they mostly ended up in Oklahoma.

We enjoyed watching another re-enactor, who was surrounded by a variety of furs, make moccasins. As we admired the size and quality of a beaver skin he was working with, he explained the process the Native Americans used to prepare it. After we attended a tomahawk throwing contest, we spent some time at a wigwam where a young woman coached children who were making bracelets using beads.

The William Conner House was next. At the entrance was a candle-making shelter where children could learn how to dip candles made of beeswax like those used in the 19th century. Each candle requires about 40 dips in the wax, and the children were able to mix in some lard if there was a shortage of beeswax.

In one room, two re-enactors gathered around a loom to make strings that later would be used to create clothing or bedding. They explained how cloth was made from products on the farm.

A four-room brick house was authentic aside from a modern display. We could pick an object — a bottle of corn or a piece of cloth, for example — and on a small screen get the history of how the product was grown, made or shot. The screen also showed how the various items contributed to the welfare of the Conner family.

The actors all had roles that included knowing their background with family members and friends of the period, whom they would refer to and who sometimes would walk into the scene. They knew the details of their work, and we enjoyed watching them perform it.

A great example of this detailed knowledge came when we attempted to test the limits of how much they knew about their roles.

At Whitaker’s Store we met Whitaker, who had a nephew working with him. We admired Whitaker’s clothes that were made of linen and an undershirt crafted from the more expensive cotton. As we talked about the objects in the store, we asked for more information on the china.

He explained that the most expensive pieces were from England, while the less expensive ones were from China. He showed us some from China that was relatively cheap because it was put in barrels of rice and used as ballast for the ships that carried it. He took pride in showing us a new variety of china from Britain with multiple colors as a result of some new techniques.

Whitaker and his brother, who jointly owned the store, had a disagreement about the expensive china because the brother said it took longer to sell because of the higher markup. The brother said he hoped one of the more affluent ladies in town would buy some so the other residents would want to get their own to maintain their social status.

At the schoolhouse, an older male teacher was in charge with three visiting children who volunteered to become students. He gave examples of what was covered in the three months that schools were open and how 5 cents a day was the going rate for an education. As far as economics, we learned the average laborer earned 35 cents a day — certainly a time when every penny was useful.

At McClure’s Home & Carpenter Shop, McClure was busy making legs for a table that was on order, but he took time to show us the progress he was making. He gave us a brief demonstration of his woodworking technique and equipment, but McClure noted that he was not able to pump the lathe as long as he could when he was younger. When asked how he was going to stain the wood, he quickly replied, “With walnut stain.” He provided us with a formula that consisted of rotten black walnuts and a special way of cooking them.

Dr. Campbell was not in when we visited his office, but five women were sewing a special dress for his wife, who was watching the process. They gave us a description of how the pattern had been designed and more details of how the dress was being constructed to ensure it was of the very best quality.

We saw pottery being made and a kiln large enough to hold 350 pieces. The pottery maker showed us a special blend of materials that gave some of his mugs a red glasslike interior.

In six homes where food was being prepared, the fireplace was burning and appropriate cooking pans and kettles of the period were being used.

We met a woman who said she was living with her sister, brother-in-law and their three children. She said she paid her way by sharing the tasks. She was making a recipe that called for potatoes, eggs, cornmeal and flour.

The animals common in the 1800s were difficult for the staff to find and preserve because of the amount of breeding for certain qualities that happened through the years. The cows had strange horns, the pigs were smaller and the sheep looked quite different than we are used to seeing.

The children visiting seemed especially drawn to the animals that were in fields and in barns. Kids were able to touch the various animals, and the only modern item in view at the park was hand sanitizer for use after petting the animals.

The man who welcomed us at the entrance said visitors often try to get the re-enactors to break character; he said the roles were so well-rehearsed that it was practically impossible. We must admit that all of our questions were handled deftly.

Prominent from a distance was a huge balloon that is a reproduction of one that was launched in 1859 from Lafayette, Ind. The balloon is tethered, allowing visitors to ascend 350 feet in the air but no farther. Storms were threatening the day we visited, so the balloon was grounded.

We spent relatively little time browsing a large visitors center that was packed with children involved in creative activities and interactive learning.

Another section for visitors to explore is the 1863 Civil War Journey, which we write about in a later column.

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