Prairie Treks

Hillis Howie and Summer Expeditions

Hillis Howie was a 23-year-old crafts and nature study teacher at The Orchard School in Indianapolis when he dreamed up the concept of a summer expedition for a group of boys. The first expedition, which he dubbed a “Prairie Trek,” took place in 1926 with nine boys and two adults—Howie and former Children’s Museum employee Stewart Springer.

Participants of the 1930 Prairie Trek expedition.

For the first four years, the Treks were organized as extensions of the Boy Scout troop that Howie led, with the boys choosing to focus on such special areas of interest as mammalogy, ethnology, geology, archaeology, ornithology, herpetology, photography, and journalism. Anyone choosing the latter was expected to send news of life on the road back to the Indianapolis Star, one of the city’s daily newspapers.

Prairie Treks and The Children’s Museum

In 1930 Howie approached The Children’s Museum with a proposal to conduct that year’s trek with the intention “to seek and secure archaeological and natural history exhibits for the museum.” So began a partnership that resulted in trekkers camping under the museum’s red and white sea horse pennant and bringing back fossils, meteor fragments, pottery shards, and Native American artifacts. The 1932 expedition returned with a plaster cast of dinosaur footprint the trekkers had discovered in Jurassic-era sandstone in northern Arizona.

Hillis Howie, Prairie Trek founder, in 1930.
In 1934 Howie bought a 440-acre ranch in New Mexico that he dubbed “Cottonwood Gulch.” Three years later longtime museum board member Kurt Vonnegut Sr. offered to design six cabins to house that summer’s campers in return for free tuition for his son Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (who grew up to become the internationally acclaimed author of Slaughterhouse 5 and more than two dozen other books).

Many years later Kurt Jr. remembered his expedition fondly and had this to say about Howie: “. . . part of the American experience is to suddenly come across a truly great person who never becomes rich or famous, but who is enormously beneficial just to those near him. Hillis Howie was such a person—a great naturalist, very kind and strong with boys.”

Final Museum Expedition

The museum-sponsored Prairie Treks lasted from 1930 to 1942 when World War II intervened; the final one under the museum’s banner was held in 1946, after which Howie moved the Treks’ point of departure from Indianapolis to St. Louis. Eventually Cottonwood Gulch became the centerpiece of a foundation-run summer program that continues today.

This 25-minute video from The Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, which still offers treks for youths and adults, includes footage from the earliest years of the Prairie Treks shot by Hillis Howie. At about the 17-minute mark, the video begins to cover Prairie Trek history from 1947 to 1958, after the program’s association with The Children’s Museum.