Families try homesteading for spring Frontier House

By Theodore Fischer

A diverse group of Americans placed in a remote and inhospitable locale must overcome physical challenges and psychological stress for a chance at winning a huge prize that will change their lives. Sound like an idea for a “reality TV” series?

Actually, the description fits not only a forthcoming PBS series — The Frontier House, a sequel to 1900 House that’s scheduled for next April and May — but also (here’s where the reality comes in) the federal government’s real-life offer to Americans who dared to populate the West.

A month from now, their ordeal will be (reenacted) history: three families that rolled into Montana in May to spend five months living like 1893 homesteaders. (Photos: Audrey Hall, WNET.)

This was the deal: The Homestead Act of 1862 offered U.S. citizens the chance to claim 160 acres of government land. All they had to do was pay a nominal fee, build a habitable dwelling (at least 10 by 12 feet in size with at least one glass window, according to government specs), and plant some crops. Survive five years, and the land was theirs.

For PBS the prize may be critical acclaim, weeks of water-cooler buzz, and even higher ratings than 1900 House, whose four episodes averaged a 3.4 rating (3.5 million households or 4.9 million viewers) in June 2000.

The sequel arrives in the spring (April 29-May 1), instead of January, when PBS originally slotted Frontier House. January was already bursting with premieres such as Cyberchase, Secret of the Brain, Ken Burns’ Mark Twain bio on American Experience, and American Family, PBS’ first dramatic series in decades.

“We would be competing against ourselves across the boards for media attention,” says Jacoba Atlas, PBS co-chief program executive. “In addition, we knew that moving Frontier House would allow us to maximize the effectiveness of our limited promotional resources, including advertising dollars and long-lead publicity opportunities. We are looking for Frontier House to serve as an undiluted hallmark of our PBS May schedule.”

True West, circa 1883

Frontier House was already on the drawing board when The 1900 House aired last June, its inspiration the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books that Beth Hoppe, executive producer for WNET, was reading to her children. “But the real-life Ingalls family was in Kansas and Missouri, which don’t sound so Western today,” says William Grant, director of science, natural history and features programming for WNET. “In 1883, the Indian Wars are over, and so is the era of the West that you see in the movies — gunslingers, wagon train attacks (most of which never or hardly ever happened compared to what Hollywood has given us). We’re now talking about families, homesteaders, people who have gone West to find land. That was all happening in Montana in the 1880s, and Montana today still evokes that.”

That angle is an important component of the marketing strategy, since WNET hopes to recoup some of its costs by distributing Frontier House to a worldwide audience passionately interested in even an authentic portrayal of the American West. The project will cost an estimated $4.1 million — $3.3 million for production and the rest mainly for promotion and operation of an extensive Frontier House website. While the search continues for a corporate underwriter, PBS, CPB, Alfred P. Sloane Foundation, and Britain’s Channel 4 have already provided most of the funding. “Although it’s one of the more expensive things we have ever done, it was remarkably easy to sell those people,” says Grant. “We just need to find the corporation who views it in the same way.”

Talent hunt

More than 5,000 people applied to live like pioneers on TV.

An earlier challenge — after WNET green-lighted the project last year — was recruiting 21st-century Americans who wanted to live like 1800s pioneers. Newspapers picked up a WNET press release about the casting call. Promos ran on PBS stations, some at the end of The 1900 House.

WNET received more than 5,000 applications. They came from teenagers to octogenarians and from every U.S. state, England, France, Uruguay and the Czech Republic. Applications arrived encased in log cabins and inscribed on parchment. Some came with homemade soap, candles, tanned hides and rendered lard. Women offered to conceive and give birth on the program. The staff conducted phone interviews with likely prospects, then visited promising candidates in their homes.

What were the producers looking for? “The most important thing was finding families who were genuinely interested in the history and excited to participate in the experience — not people who wanted to be on television,” says Hoppe. “We wanted to be sure the families had good communication with each other, because we learned from The1900 House that it would be hard. We also hoped people would have a little bit of a sense of humor, which we found was really important in doing 1900 House.”

In terms of outdoors skills, the producers shot for a middle ground of American preparedness between, say, Woody Allen and Daniel Boone. “We wanted to put an average, technologically engaged, modern group into the technology of a different time to see how they would handle it,” says Hoppe. Psychologists and consultants helped producers determine who made the final cut.

The chosen few took a two-week crash course in frontier readiness in Virginia City, Mont., a restored Victorian-era gold-rush town. Coursework covered “notching” logs to build cabins, handling animals, making soap, washing clothes, planting crops and taking care of personal hygiene in a toilet-paper-free society. After two weeks of shuttling between the 19th and 21st centuries — they slept in a modern hotel and went bowling at night — the pioneers and trudged off to claim their land.

Houses divided

The Frontier House has several obvious similarities to The 1900 House — contemporary people thrust into a historical setting, Anglo-American co-production of WNET and the UK’s Wall to Wall Television and Channel 4, and even the same producers, WNET’s Hoppe and series producer Simon Shaw of Wall to Wall. But the differences are more striking.

“The main difference is the subject matter,” says Hoppe. “We’re taking on one of the Great American Myths, and 1900 House was a British family living in London with the technology of Victorian times.”

The Frontier House will also have more programs — six one-hour segments compared to four — and include more families and more houses. While the earlier series followed life with the six-member Bowler family in a suburban London townhouse, Frontier House covers three wilderness homesteads and three families: the Glenns of Tennessee (four members), the Clunes of California (six) and the Brooks of Massachusetts (two). Besides opening up new opportunities for intra-family interaction and relationships between family groups, the larger numbers permit a bit ethnic diversity (including one African-American homestead) and economic diversity. One family has gone into the livestock and dairy business; another specializes in poultry.

Frontier House families will spend significantly more time on the project — more than five months (from early May until Oct. 5) compared to three months for the Bowlers. And while the Bowlers could maintain a semblance of normal life, with papa Paul Bowler (albeit clad in an century-old uniform) marching off to work at the Royal Marines each day and the kids attending their regular schools, the Frontier House families have gone cold turkey — no day jobs, no schools, no contact with the outside world except for snail-mail correspondence they collect at the Frontier House store every five or six weeks. Because they’re cut off from normal jobs and income sources, participants receive stipends to replace lost funds. “People aren’t gaining, but neither are they losing because of this,” says Shaw. (The producers made a similar arrangement with Joyce Bowler of 1900 House, who took a leave of absence from her job as a social worker.)

But physical challenges present by far the most dramatic differences. Sure, the Bowlers had to live without electricity and central heat. And they had to master antique appliances and endure the incessant nuisance of finding good help. But the Montana homesteaders had to build their own houses, grow or kill much of their food, fend off bears and rattlesnakes and mosquitoes (one pioneer counted 91 bites on her body), and survive an unexpected (in June!) nine-inch snowstorm.

One other notable — and perhaps particularly American — twist is that the Frontier House project has set a specific goal: survive a Montana winter. The volunteers won’t be forced to risk their lives by staying in their cabins in the bitterly cold months, but consultants will determine which families would likely prove the weakest link.

“There’s dozens of things we can judge their likely success on,” says Shaw, “How much food they’ve produced, how much cash they have left in credit at the store, how much hay they’ve got in to feed their animals, how big their woodpile is. And our consultants, from livestock consultants to construction consultants to food and nutrition consultants, will all come back and take a look at all the various aspects.” Historically, only about 40 percent of homesteaders lasted long enough to own their claims.

Ah, wilderness

Tool expert Bernie Weisgarber helps a settler build a cabin for one of the Frontier House families.

The Montana Film Office helped the producers locate a site that satisfied a rather rigid set of requirements. It had to be isolated — away from the lights of town and airplane sounds — but accessible by car and hospitable to agriculture. “We ruled out large sections of Montana because the soil was so bad it wasn’t farmable,” says Hoppe.

Planners finally chose land (exact location undisclosed) in a remote valley that had been ceded by the Crow Indians in 1882. The three 160-acre homesteads are strung out along a creek within a 15-minute walk, easy visiting distance. But to reach the Frontier House store where they get and send mail, bulk up on staples and obtain medicines, homesteaders have to hike 10 miles over two mountain passes. And while some local people have observed the proceedings from afar — the valley is private land — gate-crashers have thus far posed no problem. In fact, Montanans seem a bit blasé about the presence of film crews since The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It were also shot in the vicinity.

The 15-person WNET/Wall to Wall crew consists of two directors (each of whom is responsible for three programs). One crew is on hand all the time and a second comes in for big events. At first the crew lived in teepees near the homesteads and filmed every day. Now they’re holed up in a town about an hour-and-a-quarter away and shoot only every three or four days. Even then these 21st century outsiders maintain a discreet distance. “They come in, they shoot,” says Hoppe. “Joyce Bowler [of 1900 House] used to say that what she liked about it is they ‘respect the bubble.’”

Since last May, an ambitious Frontier House website has kept tabs on the pioneers. The site provides background info about the project itself and frontier homesteading while gradually introducing each of the participants (new profiles appear every two weeks or so). The site also posts Frontier House rules covering areas such as Communications With the Outside World (snail-mail only, incoming packages may be checked for out-of-period contraband), Working Collectively (permitted, but not encouraged). Period Medicine/Cures (sanctioned period medicines recommended), and use of the “Emergency Box” that contains medical supplies, radio, fire extinguisher, emergency lighting and bear repellent.

PBS loves reality TV

Public broadcasting and reality TV has a long and happy history, beginning in 1973 when Craig Gilbert’s An American Family chronicled one unusually eventful year in the life of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif.

The notion of observing modern people in historic times dates from the 1970s when the BBC series Surviving the Iron Age installed 17 volunteers in a reconstructed Iron Age (circa 300 B.C.) fort for an entire year. The Beeb is currently recruiting a few good men for a foray into France for two weeks in World War I-style trenches — tear gas compris.

Some time after PBS runs The Frontier House, the network plans to carry two more Wall to Wall/Channel 4 productions:

  • The1940s House — suburban London family at the onset of World War II — which already has been broadcast in the U.K., and
  • The Country HouseUpstairs Downstairs meets The Real World — which is scheduled to air in the U.K. in spring 2002.

PBS considers the Britishness of these programs a slight drawback but no disqualification. “If we were starting from scratch, Country House and 1940s House would not be first on the agenda,” says Jacoba Atlas. “But we want this franchise, and we obviously don’t want this showing up on another system, which could easily happen.” A plan to place contemporary peasants and gentry in a medieval European castle is currently in the kicking-around stage.

But call it what you will — reality TV, observational documentary, experiential history or simply “Houses” — this type of programming has carved out a niche on the public airwaves. “It’s kind of perfect for PBS,” says Atlas. “It’s education, and it provides an amazing picture into the past while still being very entertaining.”

Ultimate goal: prepping for the winter to come

The six one-hour episodes of The Frontier House will run in three two-hour segments from 9 to 11 p.m. on three consecutive Wednesdays–May 1, May 8, and May 15, according to PBS. While episodes maintain a roughly chronological order, each one develops a particular theme from homestead life. The themes:

1 — Introduction. Project outlined, participants introduced. After two weeks at what Simon Shaw calls “historic boot camp” in Virginia City, Mont., homesteaders embark on overland journeys to claims.

2 — Arrival. Homesteaders reach claims, start building homes, establish water and sanitation systems, begin plowing ground, planting seeds. Surprise ending: nine-inch snowstorm in June

3 — Women. Focuses on daily lives of female homesteaders, the toil, loneliness and frustration. Adhering to historic practice, young man arrives on claim six weeks ahead of fiancée to build home and set up housekeeping. Concludes with frontier wedding ceremony.

4 — Enterprise. Spotlights difficulties of scratching a living off small plot of land in hard climate. Homesteaders sell produce and homemade goods in local (non-Frontier House) community.

5 — Children. Focuses on lives of youngsters, with emphasis on the amount and difficulty of responsibilities, minimal free time, lack of Gameboys.

6 — Finale. Frontier Fair sequence with descendants of actual Montana homesteaders includes livestock judging, games of frontier skill. Consultants assess each family’s odds of surviving first winter. Concludes with follow-up interviews back in the 21st century.

EARLIER STORY
Producers lead the way with 1900 House.
RELATED LINKS

Frontier House website and webcam.

Theodore Fischer is a freelance writer and senior editor in the books division of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Washington.
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