Museum’s battle plan: Conner Prairie seeks boost from Civil War re-enactment

  • Comments
  • Print

There were no Civil War battles fought in central Indiana. That won’t stop 400 soldiers in inhumanely hot wool uniforms from re-enacting a massive battle June 10-11 at Conner Prairie.

Confederate and Union flags will wave. Brass instruments will sound. Cannon blasts will shake the trees. Sixty armed men on horses will lead the charge.

The fighting will last less than an hour each

day. The Hamilton County living-history museum hopes the economic effects last much longer.

With the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War five years away, museums and cities across the once-war-torn nation are packing black powder into their touristattracting muskets in hopes of cashing in on nostalgia for the biggest war fought on American soil.

Conner Prairie’s one of them. The weekend’s activities will include a military dance, as well as traditional mid-19th century grub-goulash, salt pork and hard biscuits-and demonstrations of military tactics.

“We’d love to see 5,000 to 6,000 [people attend],” said Stan Hurt, chairman of Indiana Supply Corp. and a Conner Prairie board member.

But that’s just this year. As the sesquicentennial anniversary nears, historians predict interest in the re-enactments will peak. So just about the time Conner Prairie is ironing out the kinks in what it hopes will be an annual event, there could be a pretty good line at the gates outside the Fishers museum.

Similar events around the country have been known to draw crowds topping 100,000. Could the Conner Prairie event get that big by 2011?

“Yes, because we have parking and we have the grounds,” Hurt said. “We have the facilities that most places don’t have.”

That means the weekend could eventually rival Conner Prairie’s biggest attraction-Symphony on the Prairie, an annual series of summer concerts that attracts about 75,000 visitors.

The museum has hosted similar, albeit smaller, events in the past. Last year, 1,300 people attended a one-day re-enactment.

It’s a safe play. Unlike bringing in a big-name, big-dollar entertainer like Randy Travis or Willie Nelson, bringing in Civil War re-enactors costs virtually nothing. They’re all volunteers.

“We can’t lose too much,” Hurt said. “We only lose money on our media advertising.”

The museum would not disclose how much it plans to spend to promote the event, but Hurt said the museum would like to break even this year after it pays advertising expenses.

National muster

Experts say the event has a good chance of growing in size, but caution that interest in re-enacting the Civil War (1861-1865) tends to ebb and flow.

“It takes about two or three years to get an event really going,” said Ed Hooper, editor of the Camp Chase Gazette, a magazine devoted to Civil War re-enacting. “If Indianapolis could start a good event, then it would draw its own people from Indiana and Ohio. And you’ve got more than enough re-enactors there to support it. Over a two- or three-day period, it would be easy to pull 100,000 into it.”

Outside of the South, the largest concentrations of re-enactors are in Indiana, Ohio and the Northeast, Hooper said.

But while the market is about to grow for Civil War re-enactments, so is the competition. Many locales are beefing up their budgets to promote events leading up to the sesquicentennial, Hooper said.

Public and private groups in Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia are starting to pour money into advertising their anniversary events. That might lure away some of the audience for future faux bloodshed at Conner Prairie.

“We’re going to be talking millions, probably hundreds of millions” to promote these events, Hooper said.

And the level of interest will undoubtedly fall off after the 150th anniversary passes.

“[The level of interest] undulates,” said David Shackelford, an Indianapolis private investigator who will command the Union troops at the Conner Prairie reenactment. “In times of financial distress, it declines because people don’t have expendable income. When the 125th anniversary came along, there was a great surge; when the Ken Burns documentary came out there was a surge.”

Regardless, he can’t wait to take the battlefield at Conner Prairie.

“The re-enacting community in the whole in the Midwest has always viewed Conner Prairie as a premier site with unlimited potential,” Shackelford said.

The Conner Prairie event should quickly “be on the top of the list” of the best regional events, he said, because of Conner Prairie’s permanent Civil War-era exhibits. Cottage industry The economic impact of the event will be felt beyond the battlefield. As with any large tourist event, hotels and restaurants will get a boost.

Re-enactors are coming from seven states.

“By the time you add up gasoline, food and buying a Coke, I don’t know what the cost is, but it’s clearly in the hundreds of dollars [per person],” Shackelford said.

Nationally, it’s a huge business. While no studies have been done to pinpoint the size of the industry, Hooper estimates

more than 250,000 people regularly participate in events, either as soldiers or civilians.

It costs roughly $1,000 to outfit a soldier, with the biggest expense being a $400 musket or rifle. That easily puts the industry into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Indiana businesses are getting a good piece of the action.

Whitestown-based Fall Creek Suttlery is one of the largest retailers of the uniforms and rifles used by the re-enactors.

Hoosier Historic Enterprises sells vintage toys and history books at re-enactments. Leslie Anderson founded the Fort Wayne-based company in 2000, and sales last year topped $20,000. About half of the sales came from Civil War events, the other half came from Renaissance festivals.

“That’s about twice what we did the previous year,” Anderson said. “It continues to go up every year.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.