Experience area close-up: 1836 Prairietown

Prairietown has always been set in 1836. Since the 1970s, it has had the characters that Conner Prairie visitors know and love today.

Staff Report
Next in our series examining our outdoor experience areas, we’re taking a look at one of our older areas: 1836 Prairietown.

The Prairietown area, originally called the Village, began as just a few buildings from around the state salvaged by Eli Lilly, who was particularly interested in the trade shops, such as the blacksmith and pottery shops. In 1964, Lilly gave Conner Prairie to Earlham College and some tours began, led by farm wives and volunteers. During that year, the number of visitors was only around 2,500, an amount the museum welcomes on a single busy summer day today.

Ten years later, in 1974, the Village opened to the public, with first-person interpretation adopted by the staff. By the mid-1970s, most of the buildings that are in Prairietown today had been placed there, although some have been moved around in the decades between 1970 and today.

Inside the Blacksmith shop in 1836 Prairietown.

All of the buildings in Prairietown are historic and have been relocated from various original locations, aside from the pottery shop, the shelter over the kiln near the pottery shop and the carpenter’s shop. Those were built on-site by our staff using historic tools and methods during the 1990s, when guests were able to watch the historical construction process.

Prairietown has always been set in 1836. Since the 1970s, it has had the characters that visitors know and love today, including the Campbell and Curtis families. Some new characters have been added over time. These characters were developed after vast amounts of research into what types of lives people led in Indiana in 1836, including reading diaries, letters and other primary sources. The objects in Prairietown, from the furniture and cookware to the attire worn by interpreters, are based on historical artifacts or are original. Even the placing of the furniture in the buildings is based on historical research.

Inside the pottery shop in 1836 Prairietown.

The biggest change to Prairietown came with Conner Prairie’s Opening Doors initiative in the early 2000s. Thanks to this innovative approach, interpreters now work to actively engage visitors in conversation rather than simply speaking from memorized scripts. This method of interpretation has helped to revolutionize the interpretation at living history museums throughout the U.S.

Along with that change, in 2009, we began a version of what today are called Prairietown community events, where special program options are offered, like a chance to join the literary society or participate in a spelling bee 1836-style. Those events take place during weekends.

Today when visitors arrive in Prairietown, they can see a potter, carpenter or blacksmith at work in the shops; take in a lesson at the schoolhouse; see what’s cooking at the Golden Eagle Inn; and more.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at the characters, buildings and programs in 1836 Prairietown. Be sure to follow along on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter to learn all there is to do in this experience area.