Historic building preservation was in its infancy in 1934, when Eli Lilly, Indiana’s great philanthropist and keen amateur historian, purchased a dilapidated, Federal-style, brick building dating from the 1820s and the surrounding 800 acres of woods and farmland on the west branch of the White River just outside Indianapolis. It had been built for William Conner, a little-known but important figure in Indiana’s pioneer history.
Conner had been, by turns, one of the first white children born in Ohio (1771), a captive of marauding Indians, a scout for the settlers fighting those Indians in Ohio and Indiana, an interpreter at the treaties that ended the Indian wars in those states, an agent of Indian removal from Indiana and an early land speculator who owned thousands of acres. The small settlement he helped create facilitated his land sales by providing some of the goods and services that pioneers from the East needed.
Intending to re-create that settlement, Lilly moved and carefully restored historic buildings, many of them log, from all over Indiana using innovative methods developed at Colonial Williamsburg. What he could not have know at the time was that the undeveloped land he was preserving so close to downtown Indianapolis now both rivals and complements the importance of the state’s early cultural history he so lovingly preserved.
I began my tour at Conner Prairie’s visitor’s center, which includes a bookstore and an informative museum, then walked along one of the dirt roads that connect the re-created settlement. Just past the Golden Eagle Tavern, an old frame building dating from the 1830s, I came across my first log building.
Some things about it are typical of a frontier log building: its hewn logs, the door centered in its front wall with a small window flanking it, the story-and-a-half wall height and a roof covered with large, rough-cut wooden shakes. Other things seem out of place, especially a gable-end brick chimney that definitely would have been a refinement on the Indiana frontier, where flat limestone slabs nearly always served that purpose. Near the chimney, I noticed that the mud daubing covering slabs of wood chinking diagonally wedged between the logs was starting to fall out. The daubing wasn’t the only thing showing signs of neglect. The dooryard, which today we would call our front yard, was an overgrown tangle of weeds and bushes.
Nearby is a small building covered with white painted clapboards whose front door and two flanking windows are trimmed with green painted frames. Its door was open, so I walked in and met the first of the costumed interpreters that I encountered at Conner Prairie. Playing the role of the weaver’s wife, she was a font of useful information. She told me that the cabin I had just seen was in disrepair because it had been built by a squatter who had been run off. Consequently, the empty building was for sale. I noticed that the weaver’s house, despite its neat outward appearance, was also a log building, whose interior had been whitewashed to seal and lighten it.
Moving on, I came to a part of Conner Prairie separated from the early Indiana frontier I had just visited by the 110-foot-long Cedar Chapel Covered Bridge and a time span of 50 years: a re-creation of the prosperous Zimmerman farmstead of the 1880s. At the bridge’s far end, I noticed an enormous log barn standing in a pasture rimmed with budding hardwood trees.
Even at a distance of 400 or 500 feet, I could see that it was massive. It measures roughly 30 by 60 feet and comprises two towering log pens, each around 20 feet high, topped by an incredible 60-foot plate log. The last place I’d seen a log that big was Estonia (“Looking Back,” Log Homes Illustrated, November 2006).
The barn’s two symmetrical log pens are separated by a large open passageway that sheltered an antique threshing machine. The wall logs are huge and looked to be poplar, which grows to enormous size in southern Indiana. Midway through the passageway, one of these logs measured 40 inches from its top to bottom sides. Outside, the sill logs, which are prone to rot because they lie so close to the moist earth, had been replaced by Conner Prairie’s modern cabin builders, using logs just as large as the originals in the walls above them.
For more about Conner Prairie, see the April 2008 issue of Log Homes Illustrated.