It’s 1883. You’ve arrived in a desolate part of Montana with your family and all your worldly belongings, ready to create a homestead and start your new life as a farmer. You have only the woods and the tools you brought with you to build your house. You have only the animals you brought with you to raise and work the farm. There are only two other families nearby.
Oh, and don’t forget to describe your experience for the cameras. They’re filming everything.
So begins the fascinating PBS miniseries Frontier House
(2001), where three modern American families volunteer to be transported back in time to live on Montana homesteads for five months. I’d watched one of these shows before–1900 House
, where a British family lives in a Victorian brownstone for three months–and loved it. So on a suggestion by Josh’s dad, I checked out Frontier House
from the library.
Normally I hate reality shows, but this intersection of history and modernity hits all the right notes. Most of the participants in Frontier House have no idea what they’re in for. The family members who signed them up expected life in Montana to be like Little House on the Prairie (the TV series): running around the prairie, putting up their hair in braids, teaching their kids important life lessons. Most of them are unpleasantly surprised to discover that life is much more like the book version of Little House. Complete with endless days of baked beans, freak snowstorms, and hard physical labor.
The families have to leave behind everything from the 21st century, including makeup, toilet paper, and modern methods of contraception. (The adults have a funny conversation about this over cold pints of beer, after they learn that the most widely-used method of contraception on the prairie was a condom made of pig intestine.) Historical experts teach the families how to cook on a wood-fired range, how to chop wood and construct houses, and how to ride horses. Then the families are outfitted in 1880s clothing (corsets and bustles for the ladies, jackets and string ties for the men) and transported to their new homes via horse and wagon. After that, it’s only the families, the film crew, and the great outdoors.
I could go on and on about this show. It gave me a lot to think about, especially since I nurture a secret dream to be able to go back in time to live in the 19th century. Rationally I know that so much about 19th-century life would be difficult and frustrating, especially for women. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, part of me wants to do that anyway. So watching Frontier House was a great way to live that dream vicariously through three unsuspecting families.
Check back on Monday to find out what I loved about this series!