Forward to the Past: Frontier House, 1883

I wrote this on May 12, 2006

There’s something romantic (in the capital “R” sense) about the past. We think about it with longing, those simpler times when we were unemcumbered with sixty to eighty hour work weeks, televisions and computers in every room that keep the family separated, and the mass of things that feeds our materialism. How wonderful to live a simple life devoid of the clutter, the noise, the . . . electricity? Hmmm . . .

The show is Frontier House. The year is 1883, the place is a Montana wilderness, the “things” one can have come from either the land or the general store stocked only with items available in 1883, the amount of money comes from work and is paid in historically accurate terms. The families are three modern (2001) and diverse groups. We have the Whiny family from the South–strong, dominant woman; weak, mealy-mouthed second husband; and two smart mouthed whiny kids from the woman’s first marriage. Then we have the Bizarro family from California–wily, manipulative husband; doe-eyed seductress of a wife; the spoiled teenage daughter and her equally spoiled best friend; maybe a son, forgettable if so. And the Eye Candy clan from Boston–hot hot hot man, his rugged handsome kindly father, and later, his down to earth intelligent and sweet fiance to be made wife in the 1883 Montana territory. So I’m flipping through the channels one day (I can do that, no man around to fight over the remote), and I come across this clearly modern in terms of hair styles, mannerisms, language family all dolled up in crazy costumes from another era. I pause. It’s PBS and I’d already seen Victorian House (similar project, different era), so there may well be something interesting to watch here.

And there was. It was high drama on the high plains. The families were stuck out in the middle of Montana nowhere, with only the items they could carry there in a covered wagon (and those available, remember, at the time), and they had to make a life for themselves. They had to build shelter, sow and reap crops, manage farm life (including livestock), and in general live to live. They had to prepare through the year for the winter, and then a group of experts would come along and judge them, determining who would “win” based on their preparation for a long Montana winter spent indoors, with no means of trade, farming, etc. The stakes would have been high had they been expected to stay through the winter, the stakes would have been about what they were in 1883, with the exception that these people had no previous experience living within the limited means of that time period.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the program, and I’m too lazy to go and research it for this blog, but I can recall the internal tension of the families, the external inter-family backstabbing, and some of the strange events. The Whiny family had the most trouble because the husband and wife had no business being together (and ended up separating after the show, eventually divorcing); she was a strong-willed shrewish woman whose intensity was off putting to everyone on the prairie including her husband, and he was a silent sufferer, martyr of the world, doormat to the stars. Together they were a time bomb ticking away, and had they stayed through the winter, I have no doubt they would have made it. Well, the woman and her kids would have because when they ran out of food, she would have boiled up her husband for snacks. In fact, though they had the supplies to get through the winter, the judging team determined that they were not psychologically prepared to endure the long, dark winter months couped up in the one room wooden cabin together. They didn’t say it, but I know they thought that she’d cook him up and serve him for dinner the minute he puppy dogged eyed her or pawed at her during an off mood.

The Bizzaro family feuded with the Whiny family. Whiny matriarch rubbed Bizarro patriarch the wrong way; being very like him, he didn’t appreciate his doppelganger to be dressed in drag, so they constantly butted heads while Whiny doormat and Bizzaro sex kitten stayed out of the way. The Bizzaro family got into making moonshine and peddling it for cash (illegal both then and now), they also snuck in their own cushy twentieth century mattress (no wonder they were sexed up all the time) and the girls snuck in makeup (like no one can tell they’ve got rosy cheeks and lips and well-defined eyelashes?), and the doe-eyed seductress wife–when she wasn’t sexing up her hubby–spent her time baking pies and making curtains (nice enough, but hardly likely to get them through the winter). Indeed, the judges determined that though they had plenty of ill-gotten gains, they did not have enough food to last the week, let alone the winter. They, too, lost.

The winners, then, were the Eye Candy family. The gorgeous man and his rugged father came out west first to build the home for Eye Candy man’s bride to be. They did so in harmony, working together and building a stout little house that even the wicked wolf wouldn’t be able to huff and puff and blow down. Then Eye Candy man’s Eye Candy fiance arrived, and she was stoic, good humored, and hard working, just like him. They worked side by side, tilling the land, putting up stores. He dug a handy little pit that they would keep their perishables in (sort of a fridge underground, very clever), and she made preserves, put away the food they grew, and generally made herself useful. They laughed together when things got tough, and they made love with each other through the tough times and the good ones (though PBS didn’t air these parts, of course).

Eye Candy man and his Eye Candy fiance married on the plain, and they all came together to celebrate in their Montana way. The Bizarro family being bizarre, the Whiny family being . . . well, whiny. The judges determined that the Eye Candy family would definitely survive both the elements and each other through a long Montana winter, so they won. They were notified on their “real” honeymoon in Hawaii, and they could have cared less. I loved them for that.

So the moral of the story is this: make love, not war and always prepare ahead in order to be prepared. Okay, so that’s trite, the real moral is that Eye Candy people are just better than anyone else. Okay again, so that’s probably not the moral either, maybe there is no moral. Maybe it was just a really interesting experiment to watch. As I watched, I wondered if I would agree to being stripped of my twenty-first century creature comforts and thrust into a wilderness with only 1883 medicine, entertainment, and supplies.

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