Could a 21st-century family survive in 1883 Montana? That’s the question PBS tried to answer in its excellent six-hour Frontier House, a WNET production that premiered this spring.
The show put three clans—Brooks (Massachusetts), Clune (California) and Glenn (Tennessee), selected from more than 5,000 applicants—in a supervised frontier setting. Then after five months, a panel of experts judged their efforts and attitudes and ruled if they could have lasted out the winter. Call it a cross between PBS’s American Experience and MTV’s Real World.
Rudy Brooks, 68, helped likable son Nate, 27, prepare the homestead for Nate’s hysterical, city slicker fiancée, Kristen, 28. Rudy then lit a shuck out of Dodge—uh—Frontier Valley, leaving the interracial couple, who married on the show, to fend for themselves.
Mark Glenn, 45, raised animals and also raised hell at his wife, Karen, 36, who spent much of the show comforting her children from a previous marriage: 8-year-old, animal-loving Logan Patton and 12-year-old, butter-churning, horse-riding Erinn Patton. (Mark and Karen separated after the PBS ordeal.)
Gordon Clune, 41, president of an aerospace manufacturing company, complained, whined, cheated, ran an illegal moonshine still (which he had his company build) and earned the animosity of his fellow pioneers, while wife Adrienne, 40, tried to keep her family fed. Sons Justin, 11, and Conor, 9, did their share of farmwork, leaving sister Aine, 15, and cousin Tracy, 15, to wander about in slips, milking cows and longing for Southern California.
Each family was given a small budget and had to live as close to an 1883 lifestyle as possible (with the exception of a video diary camera, emergency pack, etc.—and in the Clunes’ case, a box spring they claimed they had found at a local dump and sneaked in under the cover of darkness). They cared for livestock, harvested hay, split firewood (not enough), grew crops, built fences and battled nature. Of course, this being politically correct PBS instead of Discovery, they were not allowed to hunt. Nor did they have draft animals. Lynching Gordon Clune was also prohibited.
It is a great show, but it got the True West staff wondering . . . What if the Clunes, Glenns and Brookses were really transported to 1883 Montana. Could they have survived? We asked our own experts (OK, not really), borrowed H.G. Wells’ time machine and sent ’em all back to the frontier for real this time, then checked five years later to see if they had actually improved their homesteads.
Our official findings:
Rudy Brooks: Killed in mining accident near Helena.
Nate Brooks: Murdered by parties unknown after his honeymoon. Racial tolerance in 1883? Think again.
Kristen Brooks: Run out of Frontier Valley on a rail after her homestead was torched. Last spotted as a laundress in Virginia City.
Mark Glenn: See Karen Glenn.
Karen Glenn: Karen took an axe
And gave her husband 40 whacks.
Vigilantes liked Mark none,
But hanged her anyway just for fun.
Logan Patton: Starved to death.
Erinn Patton: Abducted by Indians who fancied her horse. Never seen again.
Adrienne Clune: Died of cholera.
Justin Clune: Shot dead by a rancher after asking why he didn’t warn him by letter that he’d be driving his herd into Frontier Valley.
Conor Clune: Froze to death in the winter of ’86.
Aine Clune: Kilt drinkin’ dad’s bad whiskey.
Tracy Clune: Died of typhoid.
Gordon Clune: Transported his whiskey operation to Bozeman after his homestead failed. Despised by temperance leaders, miners and anyone who knew him, yet was elected mayor in ’88.
All silliness aside, Frontier House is a great show, and since it is a spinoff of last year’s The 1900 House (which sent a family to live in Victorian Britain), we suggest PBS do a sequel. This time, set it in Arizona during the Apache Wars or Lincoln County, New Mexico, circa 1878 and use the same three families to see if they’ve learned anything. Then let the True West staff and favorite correspondents see if we could survive five months at the Clunes’ sprawling mansion in Malibu.
Having lived through a night at Dudley’s in Billings, not to mention a True West paycheck, Johnny D. Boggs figures he could survive any PBS situation.