Underneath gray skies sits a world lost to time. Stone and wood buildings line dirt paths in the Pioneer Village just like they did for the Hamer family in the early 19th century.
On a cool Saturday morning, Michael Conner sits behind his work table inside the leather shop, stitching together what will soon become dice cups. They may get sold in the mercantile on the other side of this small village in Spring Mill State Park, or they may stay in the shop. Like Conner, they fit perfectly in the world of the small wooden building.
Conner said he often gets asked if he is Santa Claus. When people inquire what the jolly old man with a whitish-gray beard, clear eyes and a bald head is doing in Mitchell, Indiana, he peers over his mother’s childhood glasses, their gold round frames fitted with his prescription, and tells them Santa needs a summer job, too.
Outside his shop, disruptions in the illusion of this time capsule town walk by: people wearing flip-flops, shorts and sweatshirts pass with strollers and cell phones that will not have service again until they leave the park. Conner said if the wind blows just right through the trees, he will sometimes get a text message. He likes it that way.
Inside, generic music from the 1800s that Conner downloads plays on a tinny radio, hidden away from the public, preserving the integrity of his work space. Conner said he was more of a rock ‘n’ roll kind of man, but that just didn’t fit the scene.
Leaving the cups, Conner moves around the table to two old clocks mechanisms he found in his father’s things. After fiddling with them, he sets them side by side on top of the mantle, over the fireplace where a tea kettle warms over a less than authentic electronic flame.
Conner said he is a paid employee, but the work he does here has been a hobby since he was eight years old. As an only child, Conner picked up his father’s pastimes, working with rope, leather, brass and more. Here, though, Conner sticks to leather work. If it’s made out of leather, Conner’s hands are probably responsible.
“If you want to put it down to brass tax, I’m a tinkerer,” Conner said.
When Conner’s work gets sold in the village, it helps fund the park. Conner said he would never make things specifically to sell, though.
“Once it becomes a business it becomes not fun anymore,” he said.
Conner works at a consistent pace, mostly with his father’s old hand tools. Though he enjoys them, Conner said he loves his power tools at home. He does not have to pretend he doesn’t know the modern day here at work.
“We’re actually third person interpreters,” he said.
As such, Conner still uses his historical knowledge to teach visitors, but he can still discuss computers and sports, too. At Spring Mill, they do not claim to be exactly like the time period they are portraying.
He knows the history of the building, originally built in 1817 and inhabited by the Munson family, in-laws of the Hamers during the 1850s. He said the building was also a shoe shop at one time.
“We represent what was going on at the time,” Conner said.
Conner said the 19th century had completely different cultural norms than today. People knew where their food and clothes were coming from. They knew their neighbors, and they were built on a self-reliant lifestyle Conner loves.
“During this period of time, it was a survival situation,” Conner said.
Comparing the past to his everyday life, Conner said he enjoys this trip back in time far better. After working over 30 years for the federal government, Conner can tell the difference between people wanting to go to work and people needing to go to work. Now, retired from that work, he gets paid for doing what he loves.
Conner said his wife of just one year has been very accommodating of the time he spends at work, even when he inflates an air mattress in the upstairs of the building to spend the night in the blissful peace of the village.
“I love sleeping here,” Conner said. “It’s so quiet.”
He sleeps among scraps of leather upstairs where the family who lived there would have slept, climbing to the second floor on stairs he made himself.
“I’m a third generation pack rat,” he said.
Originally, Conner said he made the stairs to make the building look more authentic. Conner said he doesn’t know of anybody else who stays the night.
The scraps of leather sometimes end up in the hands of a child learning how to work from Conner. He said they are always bright-eyed and engaged in their own work.
“I love talking to kids,” Conner said. “I love teaching kids how to do things.”
To Conner, the children ask some of the best questions. He feeds their curiosity with all the knowledge he has. He said he has found that children are either very interested or very ready to leave.
“Parents ask a lot of the even weirder questions,” he said.
Once, when asked where leather came from, Conner said animals, anything with skin could be leather.
“I could even make leather out of you,” he said.
Conner said all that is left of the original building was a fireplace and the foundation. The building he now works in was donated to the Pioneer Village.
Light from outside spills into Conner’s workshop. He said almost all of the tools and décor inside the building is his.
“When I got here, this place was a mess,” he said.
Conner spent much of his time in the beginning cleaning up after his predecessor. He said he was most definitely the man for the job. Conner said he called the state repeatedly to get this position after a friend of his quit the job. After several conversations, he sat down for the interview and then got the job.
Conner’s leather work doesn’t seem worth the effort he put in to getting it to passersby. His work is stationary, repetitive and generally not very eye catching. They are missing the point of the work, though. Conner’s work is passion, not habit.
Though he loves his leather work, today Conner will do something different. In true historical fashion, the mill worker has called in sick. This is the most important task in the village, as the mill is supposed to run hourly for visitors. The job falls to Conner. He puts a “Closed” sign, made of leather, on his door and walks across the small bridge to the mill house.
Before the mill can even run, Rick Berk, another employee of the Spring Mill, comes and greases each wheel on the mill. He knows the U-shaped rotation of the wheels with the familiarity of an expert, explaining them in a way that shows he’s put his time in during the last ten years.
Even though he fills an entirely different role at Spring Mill, his sentiments about the park are akin to Conner’s.
“This place is so calm,” he said. “It’s just so calm and relaxing.”
Berk said the world of Spring Mill’s Pioneer Village moves much slower than what lies outside, and he likes it much better on the inside.
Conner works the mill skillfully, talking visitors through the process of opening valves and pulling levers, allowing water to power a corn grinding mill. He weighs and bags the corn meal to be sold.
A woman tells Conner she would like to buy some of the corn meal. He turns to her with a smile on his face.
“Well, I’d love to sell you some,” he said.
The whole time he works, Conner never stops engaging his audience. He keeps them interested in his actions, despite their repetitive and unassuming nature.
When he isn’t running the mill at the top of the hour, Conner leans or sits down near the mill, still sewing his dice cups into shape.
He said the water powering the mill comes from Hamer Cave, named for the family who owned the property. It used to power the mill from sunrise to sunset, six days a week and ten months out of the year.
An hour after his first run, Conner starts the process again, telling a new group the same story about how the mill works, sharing with them details that they likely wouldn’t think to find on their own.
He acknowledges the floors vibrating and tells the visitors over the roar of the mill that the walls of the building are three feet thick because mills such as this one have been known to shake mills completely to the ground.
Again he shovels the meal into a container to weigh and package. Again he fulfills the duty of a mill worker with the help of an employee of the state park. This cycle will continue until Pioneer Village closes at 5:00. He doesn’t mind though. In this reclusive village enveloped in the past, Conner feels right at home.