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Brooks | Clune | Glenn


Assessments by:
Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith (Chief Historical Consultants)
Sue Cain (Domestic Skills Consultant)
Bernie Weisgerber (Building Consultant)
Rawhide Johnson (Animal Handler)

I. Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith

Nate and Kristen, from our first glimpse of you on an interview tape we were impressed with your reasons for wanting to be a part of this project and felt that you deserved the opportunity to try your hand at homesteading. We knew of historical precedents for racially mixed couples seeking to make a new life out in Montana Territory. There were even precedents for unmarried couples who went west together. However, your choice to have Nate stake a claim out west while Kristen remained behind made your experiences as homesteading newlyweds all the more authentic -- as did Kristen's decision to allow the wedding to be planned by her groom and his neighbors. Since we've not seen any footage from the wedding and won't be looking at the final cut of that program until late this calendar year, we can't personally vouch for the historical authenticity of that event. However, judging from what we've heard, it seems you were as authentic as could be, given the fact that this was a real wedding taking place in 2001, not 1883.

Kristen, your anxiety about getting married under unknown circumstances would likely have been very much akin to the anxieties suffered by many a bride. These brides would have also agreed to follow their fiancˇs out to a homestead they had never seen, to be married in the presence of people they wouldn't have met. And, while it's doubtful that a frontier bride of 1883 would have had her parents and his parents on hand for the wedding, it was only fitting and proper that this is the case in 2001. Aside from that one major concession to present-day reality -- plus the fact that you weren't reliant on letters delayed by the uncertainties of transport by wagon and train across the miles -- the courtship and wedding seem within the parameters of 1883.

The initial homesteading activities of Nate and Rudy -- at least as evidenced by what we saw and heard during the Harvest Fair weekend -- were similar to those of other single men on the 1883 frontier. Given your late start -- mid-May -- had you lived in 1883 rather than 2001 your first concern would likely have been getting your garden in and your fields prepared rather than getting your house built. But, we can understand your 2001 priority for having a house ready for the bride. Your choosing to create a raised garden gave you the earliest vegetable crop, despite your being at the highest elevation of the three homesteads. While it's doubtful any 1883 homesteaders would have put in a garden of this type, you are to be commended, rather than faulted, for bringing your modern sensibilities and characteristic ingenuity to bear when faced with the problem of how to grow vegetables at 6,000 feet. On the other hand, as Montana's homesteaders of yesteryear realized, subsistence farming in an area where winter food deliveries would be highly unlikely would mean thinking in terms of planting a larger garden that first year and giving greater attention to root crops and to preserving wild berries and meats to get you through the cold months. Your fine root cellar was well designed and of sufficient size to have held enough for the two of you for the coming winter -- though we leave it up to Sue to decide whether the supplies you had actually laid by, would have been adequate for this coming winter. Had you been living in 1883, hunting deer and elk would have offered a means of adding protein to your table, and perhaps hunting as a means of obtaining food would have become more acceptable to you, had you truly been facing winter.

Your water supply system with its elevated flumes was well designed. However, prolonged subzero temperatures may have compromised the whole system. Even the waterfalls with their mighty torrents freeze up during the winter in Montana. And, while you could have gone to the spring itself for water, the long hike through deep snow would probably mean that burying your pipes (they may have been wooden logs with hollow centers -- or iron pipes -- back in 1883) would have been the only long-range solution to having water in winter. In the most likely 1883 scenario, of course, you would have had the use of stream water and hoped it kept running through the winter -- or you would have dug a well.

Your livestock situation seemed workable, with goats kept away from the house but well sheltered and giving you the milk you'd need through winter. While you made every effort to choose good hay for them, you're probably realistic in thinking your supply will run low and slaughtering one or more of the goats would help the rest survive and would give the two of you the meat you'll otherwise be lacking. Your sky coop was a delight -- but an elevated coop of that nature would no doubt become a freezer for unplucked chickens during the heart of winter. Winter quarters for chickens, 1883 style, might have been a ground coop -- or even a dugout or sodded over coop, but not one the wind could get into and under.

While selling your horse to avoid having to feed over the winter seemed wise to you, few 1883 homesteaders would have risked being without a sure means of travel during the winter months -- especially since most young newlyweds of that era would be expecting their first child within a year of their wedding, meaning, in your case, an April or May birth would be in the offing. Self-reliant as you are, most likely a midwife's presence would be welcome, and going for help on snowshoes might or might not prove efficient enough for such a moment. Even so, your snowshoes were a wise purchase and, barring pregnancy or other health problems, you might well have made it through your first winter without a horse. But, come spring plowing ...

The house was well built, though there still seemed to be lots of redaubing and insulating to be done before winter. Keeping wind from coming through the floor boards and making the most of your lighting possibilities would be doubly important over the winter ahead, but many an 1883 homesteader survived in dwellings less well constructed than yours. While 1883 Victorian sensibilities would never have allowed an outhouse without a door, we applaud that idea as a summer solution. However, with the onset of winter, your room with a view would fill up with snow that would melt from the rising heat and create a seat of glazed ice, making a door a good winterization idea.

Kristen's skills at washing and cooking and knitting showed to advantage, and if her biscuits and zucchini (a vegetable not likely available in 1883 Montana Territory) bread were typical of her culinary skills, we'd say she's mastered the art of cooking on a wood-burning stove. Her learning to make goat's-milk cheese and to wield a crosscut saw in order to assist in cutting wood was also in keeping with 1883 sensibilities, for the most successful homesteaders were those who did not hesitate to learn whatever they had to in order to survive in their new setting. While using the extra logs from the construction of the house as firewood might have seemed a good idea for this first winter, cutting those logs into the right widths and taking them closer to the house would have been wise -- and, perhaps because they were good, straight logs that could eventually have been used to expand the house, scouring the area for standing deadwood in order to save the long logs for future construction would have shown more forethought.

Financially you have done quite well, and the money you've gained through sale of livestock should enable you to purchase whatever livestock and other supplies you need in order to get underway in the spring. You've lived well within your tight budget, and Kristen's plan to spend the winter months knitting caps and other items was sound and could provide a reliable income over the years, especially if she also learns to spin and dye wool from your sheep. Though Nate gave no indication of the winter tasks he plans to undertake, his ingenuity would probably lead to the creation of labor-saving devices for your own claim, and reading up on the latest agricultural and livestock methodology would fill some time profitably. Psychologically, surviving winter meant keeping happily busy and avoiding cabin fever.

Overall, we feel that your homesteading venture was carried out in the spirit and within the restrictions of 1883, and with the exception of the concerns raised above, you would very likely be able to survive your first winter on the frontier. Youth and good health would serve you well through the coming season, and provided the stork didn't visit in the spring you should emerge from your cabin ready to get on with the business of proving up. Well done!

II. Sue Cain

November 5, 2001

Dear Nate and Kristin,

I want to thank you for a wonderful visit to your home. Both of you had put so much of yourself into your little piece of Montana. I also appreciated how much both of you and Rudy tried to stay with in the known boundaries of 1883. I know it wasn't an easy project for anyone. I really enjoyed your ingenuity: the woven fence, your water system, the thought of how to face your cabin are just a few of things that come to mind. But, as you know, I was asked to evaluate your ability to make it though the winter by looking at your food stores, clothes, and bedding. First, I have to apologize I did not go into your root cellar. When we were there I was unsure about what my leg would take so I was overly careful. I am sure your raised garden produced a better crop of summer vegetables, but as you found it took too much time to do that in order to grow enough for the winter. That is why people had stopped doing raised beds here in America by the 1700s, as near as I can learn. I was lax in getting an estimate from you about how many potatoes, carrots, turnips, and onions you did have in the cellar. It would have been very important to pickle any vegetable you could. Remember how tired you were of the food we give you at the beginning of the project? Those pickled vegetables, canned jams, or fruit butters would have helped to break the monotony. I was surprised no one had any cabbages. They keep so well, even if they aren't pickled or made into sauerkraut. I think the only way you would have enough food meant at least a couple of trips to the store before the heavy snow fell. You would have needed more canned goods and root crops. I remember you had extra lard, flour, and kerosene, but did you have any cheese, butter, or eggs stored? I know in the past cows would be allowed to go dry during the winter. I would suppose the same would be of goats. The chickens slow down and finally stop laying as the days get shorter. Storing eggs would have been very important, maybe more than dairy products. You could always use lard instead of butter. Just a side note, I know the animals weren't my jurisdiction, but your chickens would not have made it up in their sky coop. Speaking from experience, they need to be protected from the wind under the coop.

On to clothing and bedding. I thought that purchasing an extra feather bed and blankets was excellent. Kristin, I was concerned that you would not have enough warm clothing. You would want to make yourself a wool and/or quilted petticoat, plus probably a warmer coat. Your ability to knit would be an asset. Over all, I thought if you both stayed healthy, got to the store a couple of times, took the rest of the good fall weather to finish your wood, house, cover the floor and the other items mentioned by the team that you would make it. Being young and having no children, if you continued to work together as a team spring would come and you would welcome it. Of course, if it were 1883, there would probably be a baby on the way by now. You would be very glad Karen was close enough to come up and help. I would love to hear from you now and then. Most important to me is how did this project change your outlook to life, did the project encourage you to continue to use that ingenuity and creativeness? What did your trip back into history teach you? Best of luck in the future.

III. Bernie Weisgerber

Cabin -- Not prepared for the winter. The chinking/daubing needs some work on the wall logs. Both gable ends need fairly large pieces of wood chinking and daubing to fill the gaping holes. The windows need a small amount of tightening and trimming out. The cabin floor needs to be covered to close cold air infiltration through the cracks in the floorboards.

Fuel -- Have about 2 cords of good fir and pine firewood split, stacked, and covered. They have another two cords of good fir and pine on the ground nearby. In addition to this, they need 4-6 more cords of firewood. All three families told me that their firewood supply on hand was calculated by trying to correlate their wood stove consumption from the end of May through the end of September. The families also planned to gather wood throughout the winter. Both these calculations are woefully wrong for a Montana winter and could have had disastrous results. During the training session in Virginia City, I stressed the need to put up more firewood than they could possibly imagine. "Spend every spare minute gathering winter firewood" was my comment. They should have heeded this advice and they also should have asked local old-time residents of the area what they thought instead of acting on their own presumptions.

Winter Mobility -- They have no horses, but have two very good pair of snowshoes. As far up the drainage as the Brooks live, I would worry about no saddle horse, except given their young age and superb physical condition. I think they will be fine with only snowshoes.

Comments: The Brookses, like all the Frontier Families, have worked wonders with their homestead. Nate had the toughest row to hoe in my opinion. He is the only one who built his cabin from scratch. Also Nate is quite an ingenious fellow. Given the fact that they still have fall to finish preparing for the winter, I think they will do fine if they continue to work day and night. Very impressive homestead; starting with scratch with a small workforce.

IV. Rawhide Johnson

Nate had a different approach to the animal situation in that he sold off everything except for the chickens. Not having to milk the cow and care for everything gave him more time to work on his homestead. The chickens' nice summer home may have been a bit chilly in the winter, but more than likely they would have moved to under the house on their own free will as the weather started getting worse. The purchase of the goats was probably a good idea as they don't need to eat as much as a cow, and they seem to do fine, eating almost anything. With the hay that he put up and the grain that he purchased, his animals would have done fine through the winter.

Brooks | Clune | Glenn



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