Inspired by the success of a British public television show, 1900 House (don’t worry – I have it on order from the library), a group of PBS filmmakers got together to make a uniquely American version of the show that took a modern family back to the year 1900. For the American version, Frontier House, the filmmakers chose the year 1883, 12 years after the enactment of the Homesteading Act, and Montana, the most homesteaded territory of the West.
In the time that the three families travel back to, homesteading meant coming west, signing a claim, and then “proving” the claim by successfully living on the land you’d claimed for five years. For the purposes of Frontier House the three families must remain on the land for five months and prove to a panel of experts that they have stored away enough essentials to get them through the winter.
I was surprised by the choice of families: they weren’t like me and Matt. Having a vested interest in self-sufficiency, gardening, farming, animal husbandry, and all that would really have been cheating on this program. The point was to put three modern, normal, American families in the shoes of their frontier predecessors and see how they fared. Three families accustomed to shrink-wrapped meat, supermarkets, shampoo, hot running water, electricity, malls, cars, and television must contend with building a log cabin, cooking and heating with wood, shopping from a merchant who can only be reached by a two-day ride on horseback, hand washing clothes, daily milkings, and a whole lotta haying and wood chopping. Their reactions to the project (and each other) before, during, and especially after, are fascinating.
This is my kind of reality TV: a game of Oregon Trail meets a sociology experiment meets living history research. You should be able to find this at your local library or on your local PBS station.