Places to Go: Step Back in Time to 1836 at Conner Prairie


Before we had kids, my wife and I enjoyed many a geeky pursuit, but few captured our interest as much as going back in time to the year 1836 and visiting to the little village of Prairietown.  There we would play corn cob checkers on a carved board, dip candles in a boiling cauldron of wax, spend some time at the local trading post throwing hatchets, and trying to get all the latest gossip in the sleepy little hamlet. We did it so often that it became cheaper for us to become members each year.

Dsc00895_2Dsc00895_2Impossible you might think, but a visit to
Conner Prairie in Indianapolis, Indiana, offers the next best thing to actual time travel. Conner Prairie seeks to represent a realistic frontier town in the Indiana territories during 1836 and is considered one of the best living history museums in the country. As budgets and public interest in museums decrease nationwide, Conner Prairie is more of an anomaly than ever. Instead of pre-recorded tours, push button displays and volunteers that merely dress the part, Conner Prairie employs full time living historians to inhabit the lives of Prairietown’s citizens and bring 1836 to life for the town’s twenty first century visitors while never (EVER) breaking character. It is an otherworldly experience that has many things to offer the GeekFamily.

It might seem like this could get old real quick. Thankfully, it doesn’t. The richness of the historical setting and unscripted interactions offer plenty to keep things interesting. Add to that the planned daily activities, extra annual events, classes and outreach programs, and Conner Prairie is a
"destination experience" and worth planning a trip to Indianapolis in order to experience. On a recent trip with my toddler son the planned activities included a close encounter with a team of two year old oxen that just happened to share a birthday with him (he was dwarfed by their mutli-ton weight), a chance to try and solve a local mystery involving disappearing livestock and mysterious animal tracks throughout town, and a chance to feed, herd and milk the Zimmerman livestock. Regularly scheduled classes at Conner Prairie can be attended for a reasonable fee (usually in the $100 to $200 range) include blacksmithing (including blacksmithing classes for ages 12 to 16), pottery (including youth pottery classes for ages 10 and up), and woodworking.

You should also mark your calendar’s now for the
Arts and Arms Making classes
. This year marks the 18th year of the event and will take place from October 6th through to the 12th with both 5 day and 2 1/2 day opportunities to work with the nation’s best craftsmen to make traditional arms and accessories. Conner Prairie offers other unique historical experiences in various annual events. By many accounts we have heard from people, one of the most powerful is the Follow the North Star program in which your party assumes the roles of fugitive slaves working your way through the Underground Railroad on the Conner Prairie land meeting both friends and bounty hunters along the way. Those we’ve met that have been through the program said that it had a very powerful effect on them and one staffer warned that it may be too intense of an experience for younger children (though she mentioned a daytime version that was less scary). There is also a headless horseman program of ghost stories, horsemen sightings, barn dances and other Fall activities and a chance to tour the village Christmas candlelight for the holidays. For those Frontier House Geeks, sign up for a traditional meal by lantern light in the Hearthside Suppers offered from early January to mid March. My wife attended such a feast with her mother and had an amazing evening.

On our recent visit we explored the mystery of the missing livestock and corresponding animal tracksDsc00909Dsc00909 in various parts of town. While we didn’t stay long enough or try hard enough to solve the puzzle, I counted at least ten families that were actively following clues and interviewing every member of the
Prarietown village. There were a number of kids playing with various frontier era toys with the village’s children and I learned the finer points of playing a jaw harp from the local merchant’s assistant Mr. Zimmerman. It turns out the jaw hard is a tonal instrument and the tones are formed by changing the shape of the resonance chamber (the mouth) with the tongue and by opening and closing the throat. Mr. Zimmerman also challenged some modern teenagers to weigh out a pound of nails using a balancing scale. To see what would happen (and see how deep Mr. Zimmerman’s characterization would go),
I asked how we could trust the 1 lb. weight he was using? Was there a mark that would signify that it met some standard? He replied that they just bought them from another merchant and then turned to the girls and said that I had raised an interesting point. How could they know that they were indeed getting a pound’s worth of nails? They offered after some thought that they could bring their own weights and Mr. Zimmerman countered that he may not be able to trust them. I offered that they could weigh their trusted pound versus his trusted pound. Mr. Zimmerman added that if a customer didn’t have their own weights (many people wouldn’t), they could take a tankard and place it and the weight on one side of the scale. They could then add nails to the other side until it balanced. Next they could remove the weight and add a pint of water to the tankard. The scales should balance again showing that the original one pound was accurate.

The teenagers appeared to enjoy this real world problem solving and I was impressed that Mr. Zimmerman was ready for such an impromptu and unscripted challenge. That’s the type of stuff that happens all the time at Conner
Prairie and is one of the main reasons we keep going back year after year.
That, and the chance to throw hatchets with the fur trader!

Conner Priarie is located just 6 miles north of Indianapolis, IN, in
Fishers. The outdoor historic areas are open from March 31′s until
December except for special programs. The cost of admission is $11 for adults and $7 for children 5 to 12. For more information you can check out the Conner Priare website at or call the guest serivces number, 800.966.1836, or by email at

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