“Frontier House and the ‘Art of Neighboring'” is the second installment of my “Go West” Series. I’ve posted previously about the 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff, which focuses on a small wagon train of white and immigrant settlers who lose their way in Oregon Territory’s high desert.
Whereas Meek’s Cutoff is inspired by an actual wagon party’s westward migration, Frontier House is a “living history” program. Developed by PBS in 2002, it attempts to recreate not so much the journey to Montana Territory in 1883, but rather, what happens when settlement begins and a new, radically different life unfolds.
Three families were selected to act as “settlers” who left their homes in California, Tennessee, and Massachusetts in search of improved economic opportunities (and, for some, greater social equality). And play the parts, they did. The show repeatedly emphasized that nearly everything the families wore, ate, and used (built with, cooked with, cleaned with, etc.) was period-appropriate. [The no make-up edict went over well with most of the female cast members, but the women in one family were particularly troubled by this reality of frontier life.]
The families were skillfully chosen, as well. All were enthusiastic about embracing late-nineteenth century frontier living in Montana Territory, and so the historical aspects of the program were informative as well as entertaining. [When sitting for their formal portraits, the adult women gained almost 12 pounds in clothing alone!]
But Frontier House is as much a “reality series” as it is a living history program. The challenges the families faced in adapting to frontier life were shaped, and in some cases, magnified, by their new relationships with one another as neighbors living in a remote community.
Series cast member Nate Brooks, who arrived in Montana with his father and then later married his fiancée on the series, articulates this very aspect of Frontier House. As Nate and his father build their log-cabin home, Nate remarks that such grueling, labor-intensive work couldn’t have been accomplished without neighborly support. Settlers on the frontier had to rely on their neighbors; survival depended on it. He insinuates that many modern families would find such interactions strange, and he concludes that “the art of neighboring” is something that receives little practice in today’s world.
The ways that the families negotiate the art of neighboring constitutes, in my opinion, the central dramatic element of the series: how do the families ask, accept, and refuse neighborly assistance–or even charity? Conversely, how do the participants mask their need for assistance, and why? Almost from the show’s outset, Frontier House depicts the families working through these questions. Perhaps this is by design: the families don’t arrive to the settlement area on equal footing, as only the Glenns have a home waiting for them. This inequity forces the Clune family to temporarily stable their livestock with the Glenns. Despite the brevity of the arrangement, the Glenns’ offering of assistance and the Clunes’ acceptance of it has long-lasting repercussions for the families.
Granted, such interactions might tell us more about the art of neighboring in the 21st century than anything else. However, I found the scenes that focused on the relationships between castmembers to be particularly interesting. In fact, I was enthralled by them, and I felt less guilty about being absorbed in this kind of “reality TV drama” than in the type that crops up in shows like Survivor or Amazing Race.
Interestingly, the art of neighboring also receives attention in Meek’s Cutoff. The wagon train takes their meals together, but food resources are not shared between family members. At one point, a family of three (with one on the way) struggles to stretch their meager resources, and in response, another family offers some additional food. Curiously, the family in need stoically refuses the gift, perhaps because they know that everyone in the wagon party is on the brink of starvation.
As in Meek’s Cutoff, the adage “good fences make good neighbors,” which Robert Frost memorialized in his poem, “Mending Wall,” reigns supreme in Frontier House. The art of neighboring, as it plays out in the series, mostly involves defining boundaries regarding property and resource rights. Importantly, these rules can be relaxed when an individual or family is in great need and could benefit from accessing a neighbor’s resources. Yet as Frontier House makes plain, being a “good” neighbor also entails being able to police one’s utilization of loaned resources. It is important not to “take” too much or at an inappropriate time, in other words.
Of course, Frontier House focuses largely on the struggles, as opposed to the successes, related to the art of neighboring. The sheer physical environment challenges the tacit and actual boundaries that the Clune and Glenn families have established between themselves. For instance, a snow storm, coupled with the lack of dry, warm clothing, forces two girls in the Clune party to milk their cow near the Glenn family’s stable where it has wandered. The Glenns are clearly upset about this development. At one point, they had allowed the cow on their property in an attempt to be “neighborly” to the Clunes, who did not have a secure livestock area of their own. Being good neighbors, the Clunes accepted the Glenn family’s offer and did so temporarily. When the girls milk the cow on the Glenns’ property during the snow shower, they are not simply “trespassing”; more significantly, they are flagrantly violating the reestablishment of neighborly boundaries. The Glenns are not invested in these boundaries for arbitrary reasons. Instead, they are worried about how the cow’s presence might affect their own animals, which they need for survival.
The families on Frontier House also struggle with the art of neighboring because they can’t escape one another. Of course, the households in Frontier House are situated at a considerable distance from one another (and according to late-nineteenth century, frontier standards). Nevertheless, they form a small community whose members must negotiate social boundaries in addition to those regulating the more tangible, material aspects of everyday life. The compressed nature of the frontier community seemed to wear on nearly everyone in the series. One participant, for instance, lamented a lack of privacy at the same time she expressed sadness over losing the larger social circle that she enjoyed “back home” in the 21st century. To me, her opposing desires (no community, on the one hand, and a multitude of social relationships, on the other) constitute escape valves that undo the pressures of living in both a small community and even smaller quarters. As the series demonstrates, such escape valves were practically absent in frontier life.
Of course, my analysis of the art of neighboring in Frontier House only applies to the negotiation of relationships among individuals who see themselves as being similar to one another. We shouldn’t forget that those arriving in Montana Territory in the late nineteenth century were claiming land that belonged, at one point, to Native Americans, such as the Apsáalooke/Crow People. The Crow no doubt would have been considered “other” or “foreign” to many frontierspeople. Frontier House acknowledges that migrants to Montana Territory were not, in fact, arriving in an unsettled land but rather one that had long been occupied. And here lies my biggest, and perhaps only, criticism of the series: I would have liked to know more about the contact between the “settlers” and their Native American neighbors. How were these relationships negotiated, given the 1868 treaty between the U.S. government and the Crow?
Have you seen Frontier House or any other PBS living history programs, like 1900 House (which are available via Netflix)? What did you think of them? How do you feel about “living history” programs (television or not) in general?