The once-fierce battle over Conner Prairie came to a peaceful end in 2005 when Earlham College agreed to relinquish control of the living history museum and about $125 million in assets.
Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter brokered the cease-fire, negotiating a settlement to the years-long dispute that has taken a toll on the Hamilton County institution.
Carter entered the fray in mid-2003, following Earlham’s ouster of the museum president and 27 of its 30 board members. As the state’s not-for-profit watchdog, the attorney general focused on how Earlham had used a multimillion-dollar endowment intended to benefit Conner Prairie.
Ultimately, Carter concluded the museum should operate under the guidance of separate not-for-profit entities set up specifically to oversee its operations and finances. He worked to that end in closeddoor meetings with college leaders, even as he pursued a court-ordered accounting of Earlham’s spending on the museum.
After more than 18 months of talks, Carter publicly proposed a solution in January-Earlham would give Conner Prairie its freedom and a portion of the property and a $176 million endowment. The Richmond college, for its part, would keep the rest of the endowment and about 400 acres of prized Hamilton County land, which it could sell or develop.
College leaders agreed to the deal in February, and the two sides spent another four months hammering out the details. Carter and Earlham board Chairman Mark B. Myers signed the agreement with much fanfare July 5.
But other work remained: A Hamilton County judge had to approve the settlement. The new not-for-profits had to apply for and receive federal tax-exempt status. And various community organizations had to appoint people to serve on their boards.
That all was done by mid-December.
Some familiar faces began leading the charge from there. Five of the Conner Prairie Foundation’s seven founding board
members were museum directors during the Earlham overhaul-three of them were among those the college dismissed. Similarly, five of the new Conner Prairie Museum directors were on the old board, too.
With the new entities in place, officials expected the asset transfer to be complete by the end of the year.
Once that happens, museum supporters say, Conner Prairie can begin to rebuild its base of community support, which all but dried up during the dispute. Strategic planning is another priority, as the museum can finally turn its focus from the past to the future.
Earlham’s Mark B. Myers, left, and Attorney General Steve Carter sign the deal.