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Update: December, 2001

Continued from previous page.

Only as we handed in our work did we come to realize that enjoyable as that assignment had been for two historians who'd long yearned to write historical fiction, the real Nate and Kristen, the real Glenn family, the real Clunes would not be reading the mythical biographies we'd created. For, as producer Simon Shaw was quick to remind us, our FRONTIER HOUSE families were not to be actors working out scenarios devised by historical consultants. They were to be, quite simply, themselves -- transported to the world of yesterday. Our back stories were strictly for the use of those charged with creating that world of yesterday, a world that would contain all the accouterments of homesteading life in 1883 Montana Territory, with various luxuries and limitations being meted out to our three time-traveling families according to the circumstances implied in our nineteenth-century versions of them.

One of our most difficult tasks throughout this project was determining how to translate the 2001 dollar and various other assets of today into comparable 1883 terms. We began by utilizing an index devised by a political scientist at Oregon State University (and available on the Internet) to calculate the comparable financial status of these specific families in 1883. That was only the beginning of our foray into homesteading finances. We corresponded with the staff of the National Railway Historical Society for help in determining the cost of the families' respective journeys from Boston, Memphis, and Los Angeles. How much freight would have been included on each ticket? What items would they have brought with them? What tools, furniture, and equipment would they have decided to purchase in Montana? In fact, what would the necessities of establishing a homestead have been -- and how much would those essentials cost?

That last question took us to the Montana Historical Society archives and the journals of George Bruffey, a Montana storekeeper whose ledger entries for 1881-82 recorded sales of items from beans to barley, from hay rakes to harnesses. A copy of the 1883 Montgomery Ward catalog gave us a good sense of the cost of clothing and house wares nationally. So it was that we established, budgets that would have been representative of the budgets of real homesteaders making their way to Montana Territory in 1883, bent on setting up housekeeping on their 160-acre claims. We established their monetary status and, in collaboration with Simon and Bernie, Rawhide and Sue, Micah and Emily Ann, we helped to determine the kinds of housing, food, livestock, and household goods that should be made available to each family. But it would be up to the homesteaders themselves to decide over the next five months exactly how much sweat equity they were willing to put into turning a wilderness site into a homestead that would sustain them from mid-May through early October ... and see all of them -- and their livestock -- safely through the legendary trials of a Montana winter.

The Homesteaders
Animation of homesteaders
Media Showcase

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