Home on the Range

A new public television series transplants three American families to the frontier West of 1883, without electricity, running water or gasp! visits to the mall

Tracy Clune (foreground) and cousin Aine Clune reaped benefits from a five-month on-camera experiment in homesteading. (Glenn Oakley)
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When 9-year-old Logan Patton started getting headaches, it created something of a dilemma for the producers of Frontier House, a six-part series scheduled to begin airing on PBS stations April 29. The problem was that aspirin and other painkillers of choice didn’t exist in 1883, the period created with painstaking accuracy and $3 million by New York public television station Thirteen/WNET and Wall to Wall Television. Still, series producer Simon Shaw wasn’t about to take his zealous quest for authenticity so far as to deny the boy medication. “There’s a point where you just have to relent,” he says.

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In May 2001 Shaw recruited three modern families to live in one-room cabins for five months in backcountry Montana—without electricity, ice, running water, telephones or toilet paper. Though Frontier House is dramatic, at times even harrowing, Shaw bristles at any suggestion that the series is a Survivor for eggheads. “Reality-TV programs are game shows. We’re trying to do something more complex,” he says. Shaw helped create the British series The 1900 House, which ran on PBS in 2000. It presented the trials of an initially eager couple who suffered with four of their children through three months of cold baths and gaslit evenings in a retro-furnished Victorian town house.


Frontier House is more ambitious, involving more people subjected to a longer stay in an isolated and rugged setting. By placing 21st-century families in the 19th-century American West, complete with blizzards, nosy bears and week after week of bean dinners, the program explores how settlers once lived and, by comparison, how we live today. “Life in the American West has been greatly romanticized and mythologized,” Shaw says. “We wanted to peel away some of that veneer.”


The producers selected their three homesteading families from more than 5,000 applications. They looked for engaging, sincere, but otherwise ordinary folks with whom viewers could identify. With no prizes or winners, the experience would be its own reward.


The chosen families were supplied with historically correct livestock—low-volume, high-butterfat milk-producing Jersey cows, for example—and provisions such as slab bacon and sorghum. After two weeks of on-camera instruction in the fine points of milking cows and plucking chickens, the participants were carried by wagon train the final ten miles to their destination: a spectacularly telegenic valley 5,700 feet above sea level bordering GallatinNational Forest, north of YellowstoneNational Park.


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