"Frontier House" gives audience true picture of life in the 1880s
The premise is this: three families leave their cozy, modern-day existences and homestead in Montana using only tools and materials found in the 1880s. In order to re-create as authentic an experience as possible, they live exclusively within the world created for them.
The series has two producer/directors, and Eagle County native Nicolas Brown is one of them.
“We don’t know much about the domestic history of this time period,” said Brown. “You can open up a book and read that settlers crossed a certain river at a certain time, but we have no idea what their actual reality was like. So what we can piece together from journals was enough to piece together a reality, but we don’t really know what it was like.”
Brown, who also doubled as a cameraman at times, and his crew filmed three to four days a week. They wanted to capture what was happening, but they didn’t want to inhibit the action by their presence. The only vehicle allowed on the scene was the production vehicle; otherwise, crew members rode bikes or hoofed it. According to Brown, the crew’s difficulties were minimal compared to the homesteaders’.
“I can’t compare my hard times to theirs,” he said. “Our concerns were things like their safety, keeping their experience full of integrity and not compromising it with cameras. We set up the whole world – we thought a lot about their world. The breed and size of horses was a consideration. The kind of cows they would have been milking, the broad axe, what everything would have been made out of. We created a perfectly encapsulated time frame.”
They found a large spread of land, and each family received a 160-acre spread to farm. The isolation of the venue was important to the success of the exercise – it allowed them to literally be in a different time period.
The families were chosen out of 5,000 applicants. The Glenn family of Tennessee, the Clune family of California and the Brooks family of Massachusetts headed to the Montana wilderness for their adventure last May. They stayed five months; their experiences are encapsulated in the PBS three-part series.
“It was such an intense experience,” said Brown. “We had one couple who are now separated, one couple who got married on the set, and one family who was very wealthy in the real world, but in 1883 they struggled quite a bit.”
Surprise snowstorms and possible grizzly bears were some of the more obvious difficulties to be dealt with. It was the day-to-day living that was truly hard: laundry consumed two days a week, and the only historically faithful contraception devices were pig intestine condoms or abstinence. The crew set up a store, several miles away, where the families could buy supplies with their limited funds. If what they needed to purchase was more than they had, they traded in another possession, such as a horse.
“It’s not a reality TV show – it’s a step further,” said Brown. “The typical reality show is either a game show, where people are going for a prize, or where you show up at an airport and film people’s regular lives. This is different, this is traveling through time, experiencing a whole other era and learning something from it. It’s not entertainment, but it’s done in an entertaining way. It is a whole new way of looking at history.”
As much as it is a show about the 1880s, it’s also a show about modern people trying to make the adjustment. They didn’t always do so gracefully. Living a frontier life is a grubby existence.
“It’s not at all like “Little House on the Prairie,'” he said. “I think we successfully bust the myth of Laura Ingalls Wilder. They never had enough time to braid their hair like Laura’s.”
What they did have time for was their families. According to Brown, people spent their entire lives with their families. For most of the participants, that was a good experience. Of note is the fact that after five months, not a single piece of trash was created by the three families.
“You can see the kids change from a cyber video game world where they’re bored out of their minds, to being able to jump on a horse and literally ride off into the sunset,” he said. “I was surprised by everything. I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried about a lot of things and how they would react, how they’d survive, how difficult it would be. I suppose the biggest thing was that all of the families got so deeply involved. Some of them forgot and thought they really were living in 1880.”
The son of a filmmaker, Brown had no intention of going into the same business. He began his career as an actor, and upon graduating from college came face-to-face with a choice: he could be out of work in the United States, or head down to Mexico and be on a film crew. He chose employment, and never looked back.
“I think that I like doing a lot of different kinds of arts – acting or drawing – but film is the liveliest in some ways,” he said. “You can combine music, sound, visuals, everything to tell a story. It can be completely absorbing and fascinating for people and take them places that sometimes no other medium can. That old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words and all of that, but 24 pictures a second, or 30, can tell even more.”
Brown is a storyteller through and through.
No word yet on his next project, as he prefers to wait until the negotiations are completed before making announcements. Working on “Frontier House” has given him plenty of fodder for other projects. One such possibility would be another “Frontier House” in the first American town in New England circa 1680.
“Frontier House” debuts tonight on PBS.
Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.