Conner Prairie: Using the past to shine light on the future in Hamilton County, Indiana

Conner Prairie is an interactive history park in Hamilton County, Indiana, and is the state’s first Smithsonian Institute affiliate. I mentioned in my Hamilton County overview that Conner Prairie is one of the best historical and educational attractions we have ever visited, and I still stand by that statement.

Spanning more than 1,000 wooded acres, Conner Prairie presents history, science, art, and nature via interactive displays and exhibits, appropriate for all different age levels. It is presented in a way that makes the experience fun, meaningful, and accessible to all.

There are ten main areas of exploration at Conner Prairie. Due to exceptionally beautiful weather on the day of our visit, we were able to experience just about all of them.

Lenape Indian Camp

Lenape Indian Camp | Conner Prairie | Hamilton County, Indiana

Our day at Conner Prairie started with a visit to an 1816 Lenape Indian Camp. Interpreters were on hand to provide oral accounts of Lenape life; the kids boarded an authentic dugout canoe to get an idea of how goods were transported in those days; and we all tested our skill with an atlatl. Otherwise known as a spear-thrower, an atlatl is a hunting weapon that pre-dates the bow and arrow. The design of the atlatl uses leverage to achieve greater velocity and precision, and was especially beneficial to early peoples like the Lenape when hunting bigger game. Let’s just say I would not have been a successful atlatl hunter, but Lucia would have been able to hold her own!

William Conner House

William Conner House | Conner Prairie | Hamilton County, Indiana

William Conner, after whom Conner Prairie is named, was working as a fur trader when he first arrived in Indiana during the winter of 1800-1801. Years later, he and his brother, John, would acquire land in present-day Hamilton County, Indiana, to sell to new settlers. It was around the same time that Conner began construction on his own home, believed to be one of the oldest brick homes in Indiana. Conner lived there with his family for decades while he worked as an entrepreneur, community leader, and politician. At the same time, Indiana was moving from territory status toward statehood. Today, visitors can take a tour of William Conner House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and get an idea of what pioneer life was like.

Animal Encounters

Animal Encounters | Conner Prairie | Hamilton County, Indiana

The barn is somewhat of a free-range petting zoo. That’s not to say that operations are chaotic and disorderly; quite the contrary, actually. The idea is to allow visitors up-close encounters with some of the farm animals and with opportunities to speak to Conner Prairie’s animal specialists. Humans and animals alike move about the barn as they please. Naturally, I gravitated towards the goats, but the kids had fun getting to know the sheep and a cute little calf.

1836 Prairietown

1836 Prairietown | Conner Prairie | Hamilton County, Indiana

No time machine needed to get to the year 1836! Travelers to Prairietown are immersed in all aspects of life at a time when Indiana had been a state for only 20 years and when Andrew Jackson was president. Stop in at the general store to find out the latest goods Mr. Whitaker has in stock for Prairietown residents. At the time of our visit, the hot commodities were tea from China, French lace, and cinnamon from Ceylon. Stop in for a lesson at the one-room schoolhouse before paying a visit to the home of Doctor and Mrs. Campbell. The good doctor was out on a house call when we dropped by, but it didn’t stop Mrs. Campbell from telling us all about her husband’s great works. Mrs. Campbell also encouraged us to have a look inside Dr. Campbell’s study, where he has shelves stocked with healing agents like charcoal, chamomile, and leeches. Yes, leeches! We spent a good amount of time visiting the blacksmith shop of Mr. Curtis. One of the Barker boys from across the way had come over to ask Mr. Curtis for his daughter’s hand in marriage. That was an entertaining exchange! Speaking of the Barker boys, they run the pottery shop in Prairietown. We were lucky to see a live kiln burn on the day of our visit, and Lucia even got a chance at the pottery wheel inside the shop.

1836 Prairietown | Conner Prairie | Hamilton County, Indiana

I could continue to gush about Prairietown but I’ll make it simple by stating that it was my favorite part of Conner Prairie. Yes, I am somewhat obsessed with the idea of time travel, but the whole attraction is done exceptionally well. Though the fictional town was created in modern times, there’s still that element of authenticity, from the residents’ clothing to the buildings and artifacts. I loved interacting with the townsfolk; they never broke out of character!

1863 Civil War Journey

1863 Civil War Journey | Conner Prairie | Hamilton County, Indiana

Fast forward almost 30 years and suddenly you’re in Dupont, Indiana, shortly after Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his forces crossed the Ohio River into Indiana and raided the town. Through interactive exhibits and an almost-live action recreation, get to know the townspeople and learn how their lives were altered after the raid. It is quite the production, and it is completely fascinating. Walk through the soldiers’ camps and stop to talk to the residents of Dupont, some of whom have taken up arms after General Morgan’s raid. If visiting between late May and early September, be sure to take the little ones to the splash pad at River Crossing Play Area. There they can fire water cannons and climb aboard a steamboat while dressed in Civil War attire. Talk about making history fun…

Treetop Outpost

Treetop Outpost | Conner Prairie | Hamilton County, Indiana

Back to present day and the wildly imaginative Treetop Outpost. Surrounding the 4-story treehouse are stations where visitors, young and old, are encouraged to explore their creative, mechanical, and scientific sides. As a parent who firmly believes in hands-on, experiential learning that spans all areas of curriculum, I appreciated the chance for my kids to do things like make music, construct a building, and do some painting.

The treehouse itself is what kids’ (and some adults’) dreams are made of. It’s four levels of fun! I was drawn to the reading room, a little nook inside the treehouse outfitted with bookshelves and sports-arena type seats. I told the kids they need to ask their dad to make a room like that for me – I mean, them – in our house.

Create.Connect

As I mentioned, the weather on the day we visited Conner Prairie was absolutely gorgeous so we spent most of our time outdoors. Create.Connect is the one indoor area that we did experience. My daughter is fascinated with all things electrical. So when she saw the workstation where kids can create electrical circuits, I knew it would be difficult to tear her away from it. It took a few attempts but she finally got one of her circuits to work. Meanwhile, her brother tried his hand at building a windmill and getting an airplane to fly.

1859 Balloon Voyage

In Lafayette, Indiana, in 1859, pilot and inventor John Wise used an air balloon to successfully deliver airmail for the first time in the U.S. The 1859 Balloon Voyage celebrates that historic achievement by inviting visitors along for a ride 350 feet above Conner Prairie on the tethered air balloon. Sadly, wind conditions on the day of our visit were not favorable for the balloon to fly.

After almost 7 hours of having so much fun that the kids did not want to stop even to have lunch, I decided it was probably best that I feed and hydrate my children. We left Conner Prairie, much to their dismay, without having a chance to explore Craft Corner and Discovery Station. We’ll make those our first stops on our next visit. That’s right, there will be a next visit. We have to take that balloon ride, after all.

If you go…

  • As evidenced by our visit, families can easily spend a full day at Conner Prairie. Therefore, be sure to pack plenty of water and sunscreen.
  • Regular admission to Conner Prairie is $17 for adults; $16 for seniors (age 65+); $12 for children aged 2-12. Children under 2 are free.
  • The balloon ride is an additional $15 per person ($12 for members).
  • Conner Prairie is open May 2 to October 29, Tuesday – Sunday, 10am – 5pm.
  • Check the website for up-to-date information about hours of operation, special events, and whether the balloon is flying.

My family and I were hosted by Visit Hamilton County, Indiana, and received complimentary admission to Conner Prairie. Be assured that all thoughts and opinions expressed here are, as always, my own.

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