I feel that when most people hear the word “museum” the first things that comes to mind are paintings hanging on a wall or an old house filled with furniture you can’t sit on. The emphasis is on collecting objects and artifacts and using them in a static way to try to connect the past with the present.
Throughout its history, I’m not sure that Conner Prairie has ever fit that traditional definition. Although we do have a permanent collection of about 28,000 artifacts, these objects have always been looked at as a learning collection, one that is meant to be able to be examined and used in various ways by our craftsmen, facilitators and guests to bring Indiana’s history to life.
One area of collecting that is not normally thought of is not really material, but more “living”. Historic skills, heirloom plants and rare livestock breeds are all parts of this “living” collection. Of course the surface value of a repository of such things is evident: the excitement a young visitor gets in seeing the blacksmith work the forge and anvil or being able to see some of our cute ossabaw hog piglets.
But the reason for making an effort to preserve skills and biodiversity goes deeper than just surface level. Maintaining a variety of historic plant and animal varieties keeps a deeper genetic base that can be used to improve or back up our modern hybrids. It can also provide areas of research using traits not exhibitied in modern hybrids. Such a case is IUPUI’s study of diabetes utilizing the ossabaw hog’s resistance to the effects of diabetes.
The historic skills Conner Prairie helps to preserve are utilized through our facilitation on the grounds, reproducing objects for our guests to use and also through classes taught throughout the year. One unique teaching opportunity will be occurring this week (Feb. 13-17th) as I instruct members of the 5-19 Agricultural Development team, Indiana Army National Guard in basic blacksmithing skills. This group’s mission will be to help locals in Afghanastan set up sustainable and profitable farming practices. As part of this, it was felt that Conner Prairie could be of great assistance.
The purpose of the class will be to teach the group’s members how work with the local Afghans to set up a blacksmith shop in primitive conditions, and using simple tools and scavenged steel, make the tooling necessary for blacksmithing as well as to make simple farm tools and repairs on those tools. The goal of the mission is to give the local Afghans the resources needed to be more self-sufficient and provide a better living for themselves.
It’s very rewarding to think that a technology that is thousands of years old is being preserved here at Conner Prairie and able to be used to help people in an international way.
A big draw for our guests, especially in Prairietown, is when our team of oxen comes out to play. Red and Blue have been around for six years now and I’d say they’ve definitely earned their keep around here. What a lot of people don’t know, though, is that Red and Blue weren’t born as oxen. That is actually a title that they have to work for by learning the different calls and commands and working together to pull carts, plows, and wagons. It takes them about 3 to 4 years to accomplish all that! It’s kind of like going to a University and earning a degree, Red and Blue went to “Ox”-ford (I know, that was terrible, I couldn’t help myself!).
But just because they are fully trained now doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels! We still have to work the team, even though there are no guests around to visit us right now. Just like anything, if you want to stay good at it, you have to practice. The same goes for oxen. It’s not only good for Red and Blue, but it’s good for us Ag Staffers to get out and spend some quality time with them. Half of driving oxen is having a respectable relationship between the driver and the team. If Red and Blue don’t know me and trust me, then how can I expect them to listen to me when I want them to do something? Every time we take our oxen out to work, we are building on that trust and that relationship.
Our task for this winter though, has not only been to work with Red and Blue, but we have a newer team that we have been working with for about a year and a half now. Their names are Louis and Clark. Now I know what you’re thinking, why would you start training a new team when you already have a perfectly good one on hand? Good question! Just like farmers and drovers of the past, we have to look to the future.
Red and Blue won’t always be six years old. They will eventually become too old to pull and work the same way that they do now, so by the time that happens Louis and Clark will be six years old themselves! That way, as long as you are planning ahead, you will always have a team of oxen in their prime.
Since coming to Conner Prairie and learning how to work with the oxen, I can certainly see why people are drawn to them. Aside from the fact that I find Red and Blue to be completely adorable and hilarious, seeing oxen work in yoke is a big visual connection to our past for many of our guests. Oxen played a significant role in our country’s history. In Indiana in 1836 they outnumbered horses 4 to 1! They hauled our goods, helped clear our roads, and plowed our fields. So the next time you come to visit Conner Prairie, be sure to say hello to our oxen, not just because of Red’s cute crooked nose, but because of work they do in helping to preserve our past.