Simon Shaw Frontier House

ISBN 13: 9781597640510

Frontier House

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9781597640510: Frontier House
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A companion volume to the new PBS series Frontier House offers behind-the-scenes details on the planning, production, casting, and filming of the six-hour series, along with informative sidebars offering historical perspectives, profiles of real-life settlers, and the social and cultural aspects of life of pioneers in the American West.

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About the Author:

Simon Shaw is the successful producer of "1900s House" and "1940s House". He will also produce "Frontier House".

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: The American Dream

If you were told that an artist had devised this place, you'd believe it. Tucked in a perfect valley that nestles at the feet of a mesmerizing mountain range lies the place we call Frontier Valley. Even Montanans, who've grown accustomed to living among majestic settings, pause to take in its beauty. Sit quietly here and nature will come to you. Deer and elk graze nearby, eagles will watch you from on high. Time your visit right and hundreds of species of wildflowers and butterflies will accompany you. Last spring we brought a dozen strangers here. Men, women, and children from across America who imagined we had delivered them to a heaven on earth. But beauty and serenity comes with a price. This valley, a lush carpet of green for much of the year, can be deep in snow for up to six months. (Minus forty degrees isn't uncommon where the plains meet the mountains.) The real residents here are hungry predators such as coyotes, bears, and mountain lions. In high summer the sun chars every blade of grass to a crisp brown. Raging forest fires are an annual hazard. In truth, you and I probably wouldn't find it such an enticing place once Mother Nature had shown us the full picture of life here. But this place really was home for a small community who volunteered to take part in a unique experiment. For six months they put their real lives on hold to forsake the modern world and stepped into the shoes of their ancestors to taste life when being on the frontier promised no safety nets. Isolation, danger, unpredictable weather, and punishing workloads became their everyday expectations. Their experience affected them in ways no one expected. From the youngest (nine years old) through to the most senior member of the community (sixty-eight), this was a life-changing encounter.

It all began at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, November 21, 2000, when PBS television affiliate KPTS broadcast an appeal to its Kansas audience: "It's time to make American history....Could you live as a pioneer out in the American West? ...We're looking for volunteers." In making the twenty-second broadcast the station was, unknowingly, starting the first current in a wave that was about to envelop the nation. Seventeen minutes later the first response landed via e-mail at frontier@pbs.org. By the end of that day thirty-eight other applications had arrived. By the end of the month upward of one hundred and fifty responses were received daily as the message flashed from Hawaii to New York City. Christmas saw over two thousand hopeful families join the rush. By our deadline of January 15, 2001, more than fifty-five hundred applications had been received. As we started to wade through the piles of eager entrants it became clear that the dream of carving a new life out in the untamed land of the West was still a potent force in modern America.

Life in this day and age is way too fast. I just want the opportunity to slow down and take advantage of the more important things like the smell of pure, clean air and to know that I have a part in giving something to my children that was not bought or ordered.
-- Family, Florida

My son is a dotcomer and making lots of money at twenty-three but has decided that wealth isn't everything.
-- Mom, New York

I always feel that we are spoiled by our technological developments and want to develop a proper amount of respect for those who gave their lives so that future generations could live on.
-- Father, San Francisco

Like most girls growing up in the 1970s I was addicted to Little House on the Prairie and often wondered what it was really like to live during such exciting, yet uncertain times. I realize that life in the Frontier House would hardly be Little House but I'm certain it would be a fantastic bit of hard yet inspiring reality.
-- Family, Washington, D.C.

We offered no prizes. No big money rewards. And the experience promised the very opposite of glamour. Yet that first response spoke for many: "Can it be that we are alone in seeking a better life by wanting to downscale and decelerate from our frenzied daily pattern?" The Wyness family anticipated a groundswell of opinion in their swiftly dispatched submission. Soon National Public Radio was fanning the flames with a broadcast feature asking, "What can we learn from living in the past?" Newspaper columnists took the baton forward, from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle. It seems our offer, setting up a homestead on 160 acres of land with only 1880s know-how, food, and equipment, was an unmissable opportunity to a hard core of people in the world's most technologically advanced nation.

Shortly after launching our quest to find modern families for the encounter, a package arrived from the Montana Historical Society. Along with scores of other authorities on the era, they were helping us put together a picture of the lifestyle we aimed to re-create. Among the contents was a postcard of a railroad poster that powerfully illustrates why frontier fever infected the minds of so many. Its symbolism captures the promise by which many thousands of families were lured out West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Gold coins spill from the plow as it cuts a swath through Montana. Little did those seduced by its declaration of an affluent future know that much of the territory the railroad promoted in its poster was "badlands," often unworkable acres that would eventually prove the ruin of many. Many of those excited by the apparent offer of a place in the New World came with little knowledge of working land in such a harsh environment; clearly they were unsuited in every way for the encounter. Looking at the growing numbers of twenty-first-century applicants prompted the question: Were any of these better prepared?

A "Most Beneficent" Piece of Legislation
The Homestead Act of 1862

The concept of homesteading had been at the heart of public debate for decades before that morning in late May of 1862 when Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that made the Homestead Act the law of the land. The legislation was based on the populist ideal that the public lands of the United States belong to the people, are to be "held in sacred trust for the benefit of the people, and should be granted in limited quantities, free of cost, to landless settlers."

Though the original act was amended several times over the next two decades, by the early 1880s, the period of particular interest to Frontier House families, it still contained all the essential elements: "[A]ny person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such" could claim up to 160 acres -- that is, one-quarter of a one-mile-square section of land -- by filing a claim with the local land office, living on that quarter section for at least six months each year over the next five years, and making improvements on the land. A small filing fee, usually between $10 and $20, was required. At the end of five years, if the basic requirements had been met, the homesteader received a patent, a deed free and clear, to the land. Under hardship conditions, a homesteader who needed more time to "prove up" could request -- and was often granted -- an extension of time in which to do so. Conversely, a homesteader who did not wish to wait the full five years -- and who had the cash in hand -- could obtain early title through "preemption," buying the 160 acres for $1.25 an acre.

The wording of the original Homestead Act was, at best, vague as to the nature and extent of the "improvements" that had to be made before a homesteader was granted title to the land. Indeed, the law set forth no specifics as to the size or type of building that had to be built or the amount of land that had to be cultivated. Over time, however, prevailing wisdom said that the house had to have at least one door and one window and that a minimum of ten acres had to be put into production. The standards varied, however, when it came time for the land agent to determine the eligibility of the homesteader to be given title.

Available under the Homestead Act were millions of unappropriated public acres, most of them lying west of the Mississippi River. In general, the climate of the times in the post-Civil War years was favorable for a mass migration. The West was portrayed as an exciting place with a bright future. The railroads, eager to increase business along newly constructed routes, published a variety of ads and pamphlets designed to entice prospective homesteaders to settle in this region or that. "You will only have to tickle [the land] with a plow," one such ad proclaimed, "and it will laugh a harvest that will gladden your hearts." The railroads were not alone in using the lure of free land as part of a carefully orchestrated redistribution of the country's growing population. During the years that followed the panic of 1873, Eastern industrialists saw in the act an opportunity to entice the unemployed and indigent away from the populous centers of the East Coast. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, described the Homestead Act as a "most beneficent" piece of legislation, one intended "to diminish...the number of paupers and idlers and increase the proportion of working, independent, self-subsisting farmers."

But city folks weren't farmers, and even those who might have wanted to take part in this noble agricultural experiment could hardly have afforded to do so. The thought of free land was enticing enough, but financing the move across the country, getting started, and surviving for those first five years cost money the urban poor did not have. Thus the vast majority of the homesteaders came not from the crowded population centers in the Northeast but from rural areas in the Midwest. And the distance traveled in miles mattered less than the difference free land could make in the lives of homesteading families. For example, one of the first to file a claim under the new legislation was Daniel Freeman, a Union scout from Iowa, who transported his wife, Agnes, and their children to the tall-grass country of southeastern Nebraska, a move that assured their prosperity on land that is, today, the site of the Homestead National Monument.

The Freemans came early, but in their wake came a wave of homesteaders pouring out of the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys in search of homesteads on the fertile plains of Kansas and Nebraska. That first wave soon gave way to an influx of immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany, and the British Isles, most of whom brought with them to the Western frontier not only their dreams of free land but also their farming experience.

Those who were destined to succeed also generally brought a modicum of material resources, for the costs of proving up could be considerable. In addition to putting up a house of some kind and a few outbuildings, the homesteader had to invest in work animals, a milk cow and chickens, a wagon, a plow, fencing, and a well or some other source of drinking water. It was estimated that breaking the first 40 acres of a 160-acre homestead and putting it into production could cost up to $1,000.

Of course, not every homesteader started out with that kind of capital. When 22-year-old Howard Ruede decided to leave his Pennsylvania home in 1877 to look for a homestead in Kansas, he withdrew his savings -- $75 -- from the bank, bought a train ticket for $23.05, and set out. Though high hopes rode on short capital, Ruede counted on his determination and his strength to carve out his dream.

For Ruede the dream came true. For others, the dream proved more elusive, especially as the prime agricultural lands of Kansas and Nebraska filled up. By 1883, the year in which the would-be pioneers of Frontier House were ostensibly living out their own version of the homestead dream, families were being drawn farther and farther west to the more arid lands of the Great Plains and the Interior Basin -- to the Dakotas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. They were drawn by local promoters like Matt Alderson, who published a widely circulated pamphlet touting the attractions of Montana Territory, particularly of the Yellowstone Valley. Montana, Alderson boasted, was entering "upon a growth that will be as much greater than her sister Territories as her resources are superior." Here, he said, was where "immigrants [should]...go to farming."

And indeed they did. Ultimately, Montana was far in the vanguard of the homestead states. Between 1868 and 1961, 32 million of the 270 million acres claimed under the law were claimed in Montana. The state that held second place -- Nebraska -- trailed with only some 22 million acres claimed. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of those Montana homesteaders staked their claims in the early years of the twentieth century, after the areas more naturally endowed for farming had been claimed.

By the third decade of the twentieth century, the homestead phenomenon had largely played itself out, though the venerable act upon which the movement was based was not repealed until 1976. And even then, in recognition of the spirit that had for more than a century moved Americans to look to the frontier for free land and a new life, Congress extended the law for another ten years in Alaska.

It is all history now. But it was a formative part of our history. The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the American West to settlement, thereby fostering that most American of traits -- the spirit of independence.

Everyone was after good land. Even though it came free, "proving" your section took more than inexhaustible reserves of energy and a little know-how. Diaries from those on overland trails record similar ambitions -- to find a pocket of fertile land, with nearby good water and timber to furnish shelter. Not surprisingly, at the end of many journeys travelers often found the best land had already been snapped up. Neat houses straddled the creekside, fields were already plowed, wells dug. Newcomers would require diligence and not a little good fortune in finding the next best plot. By the 1880s, even out in remote corners of the West, this was often the first discovery at the end of a difficult trek.

Finding the land where we would film our endeavor brought us face-to-face with this reality. To give our participants a real sense of "the frontier" we had unique requirements. Settling on Montana wasn't the hard part -- it offered remoteness, beauty, and historical precedent as the state where the most homestead claims were filed. Even today its very name conjures up distant dreams in the minds of many urban Americans. Our research led us to districts rich in homesteading history, places like the Gallatin Valley, a fertile swath that's wrapped around Bozeman. There, and in many other locations diligently scouted, we discovered that these areas of productive soils still promised potential abundance to farmers today. Perhaps not surprisingly though, the only patches we found that remained undeveloped in such heavily farmed regions were lying fallow for good reason....

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