I decided to pay a visit to a place very close to my heart: Conner Prairie Living History Museum, where I worked for about five summers during college. I had not been back in many years, and I was excited to find, in addition to familiar memories of my first experiences in orchards, some pleasing new connections to cider and wine.
Just north of Indianapolis, this museum has several recreated historic areas depicting the development of European settlement in the state of Indiana during the nineteenth century: an 1816 Lenape Trading Post, an 1836 Prairietown village and a Civil War era farm. I spent a lot of time here wearing excessive amounts of clothing while doing period cooking over an open fire, and it was here that I first fell in love with historic agriculture and cookery.
Though there are many historic and reconstructed buildings in the museum, the only building original to the property is the 1820s farmhouse built by William Conner – fur trader, settler, farmer, and entrepreneur – which overlooks an agriculturally advantageous horse-shoe bend of the White River.
I’ve always loved houses of this period: the high ceilings and large windows let in so much light and air. Even on a hot day, they are flung open, allowing the outdoor and indoor worlds to co-mingle. The kitchens, based around a hearth and a worktable, have room to move in – theatres in the round of culinary action, based around moving bodies instead of appliances. And there is nothing so alive as an open hearth, where cooking is a matter of well-honed instinct for the smell of baking (or burning) bread, and a sense of temperature according to the skin, rather than a thermometer.
One of the things I loved about working there was the effect it had on the senses. There are many criticisms to be levelled at living history museums – that they tidy up the past into a theme-park fantasy, focus too much on white rural settler narratives at the expense of other American experiences, and create awkward scenarios for visitor interaction. But I still believe in their fundamental purpose of introducing history as something that can be partially experienced through the body. The trick is in moving the experience beyond simple fantasy to sympathy, where one’s bodily, sensory grasp of the material conditions of the past inspires a more personal interior understanding of another individual’s possible experience. To walk in another person’s shoes, to cook at another person’s hearth. To press apples the way it was done in 1836. Sympathy is, I believe, a profoundly democratic aspiration, and a morally and socially complex approach to history.
Spending a good portion of the day working in an un-electrified environment with no running water slows down the pace of life immensely. Sometimes, during a few slow hours, I would just watch shadows creep across the floor. It profoundly changed my sense of light, colour, and visual perception.
Occasionaly on my lunch break, I walked through the old neglected orchard on the back end of the property, in an area that was at that time off-limits to visitors. The apples, a golden yellow variety named “Early Transparent” which ripen in July, would fall to the ground and begin to rot, making the humid air thick with the perfume of pulp fermenting in the searing Indiana sun. Since the museum’s expansions in recent years, it has been cleaned up, the old decrepit trees removed. Currently, only a few remain, but even these produce enough for the possibility of cider-making.
I played a number of characters in the historic village, each with varying degrees of museum-sanctioned, historically accurate biography, and a lot of material improvised during the everyday interactions of museum staff, where the lines between history, theatre, and everyday life were sometimes ephemeral and shifting. I often mused on the possible inner lives of the fictional characters I portrayed in short poems, including this one , about a young woman living on a new farm at the edge of the wilderness, dreaming of an orchard in the more settled, cultivated life she had left back east. Settlers on the frontier are usually portrayed as looking confidently forward, into the wilderness in the American Myth. But so much of the transformation of that frontier was created by looking backwards. The space on the zone of transformation, between forest and orchard, must have been fraught with excitement, regret, and trepidation.
I was excited to find that one of my old co-workers, who had started as a teen volunteer when I worked there, was now a full time staff member who seems to be influencing things in favour or historic beer, wine, and cider making! Witness this project in progress at the carpentry shop, a cider press apparently constructed after a historic design. I’ve not seen one like this before, so I am keen to find out more about it.
She had success last year with elderberry wine. The berries on the bush outside the barn look promising, and bottles labeled “Elderberry” sit temptingly on the shelves of the tavern room in the reconstructed Golden Eagle Inn in the 1836 village.
I hope to be able to report back about the progress of cider making at Conner Prairie later in the fall, especially regarding the historical research they are drawing on to portray cider making in nineteenth century Indiana.