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Conner Prairie gives eye-level looks at Indiana life in the 1800s

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT) - Kids can bring in firewood, pump water from a well and pet farm animals at Conner Prairie. Pretty soon, they'll be able to fly.


By Tom Uhlenbrock
McClatchy Newspapers (
4/27/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Travel

On June 6, the park will unveil its 1859 Balloon Voyage experience, in which up to 20 guests at a time will climb into the gondola of a tethered helium balloon and ascend about 350 feet. At 105 feet, the French-made balloon itself is as tall as an eight-story building.

Because Conner Prairie is an "interactive history park," the 15-minute balloon flight is billed as an "experience," not a thrill ride.

"The first air-mail delivery in the United States was here in Lafayette, Ind., by balloon _ this August will mark the 150th anniversary," said Joyce Duvall, who showed me around the park. "There's a whole exhibit built around it that talks about the science of ballooning. They used balloons in the Civil War, too. That's how they spied on people."

William Conner was a trader and entrepreneur who came to central Indiana in 1801 and discovered a "prairie" amid the woodlands along the White River.

"Indiana was a wooded state," Duvall said. "That's why he stopped here. He didn't have to clear the land."

Conner traded with Native Americans and married a woman from the Delaware tribe. They had six boys. When the tribe was forced to relocate, Conner stayed and married a second woman, Elizabeth. They had 10 children.

The land passed out of Conner family hands in 1871, then through several owners before Eli Lilly, then president of the pharmaceutical company, bought the land and the original two-story brick home in 1934. He restored the home, added buildings collected from around the state and opened it all to the public as a showcase of the lifestyle of the early settlers.

Today, Conner Prairie is still funded primarily by a Lilly endowment and has buildings scattered through 200 of its 800 acres. You can visit a wigwam or throw a tomahawk in the Lenape Indian Camp, pet a goat or a miniature horse at the Animal Encounters Barn on the Conner Homestead, visit Dr. Campbell's office in 1836 Prairietown and walk across the Cedar Chapel Covered Bridge at the 1886 Liberty Corner.

Staff members are identified by blue shirts, while the rest of the community is filled with characters in period costume who will describe candle and pottery making or show young visitors how to chop firewood. Dr. Campbell scared off a group of young girls when he grabbed an evil-looking tooth-puller and asked if any dental work was needed.

"We're not a stand-and-stare museum," Duvall said. "We're all about the experience. Touch it, smell it, taste it. We're part attraction, part museum. We try to throw a little education in on the side where nobody notices."

Admission to Conner Prairie is $12 for adults and $8 for children 2-12. The balloon experience will cost $15. The park is about a 30-minute drive northeast from downtown Indianapolis. For information, call 1-800-966-1836, or visit


© 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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