Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Frontier HouseProjectFrontier LifeThe FamiliesResources
About this Series

Brooks | Clune | Glenn

EVALUATIONS OF THE CLUNE FAMILY

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

Adrienne and Gordon, first let us congratulate you for daring to undertake such a venture -- given the comfortable life you left behind, and the fact that you had three children of your own as well as a teenaged niece to care for during your months on the frontier. Historically, neither the very poor nor the very rich took up homesteads in the West. The poor could generally not afford to make the move. The wealthy had no reason to give up their accustomed luxuries in favor of a life of privation and discomfort. That's why you found yourselves coming to the frontier with only the amount of cash we felt you'd have been able to scrape together after our fictionalized business losses caused you to leave Los Angeles and look for a homestead in Montana Territory. Given that twist in circumstances, there are historical precedents for a once comfortably situated family such as yours to choose to live under the rather harsh circumstances in which you found yourselves this summer.

With hindsight, we can see that your learning curve was quite steep, not only because you'd had relatively limited experience -- at least in recent years -- at farm labor, home building, and attending to indoor and outdoor chores entirely on your own, but also because you'd had so little experience at doing without the foods, clothes, tools, toys, and other items that are so much a part of the everyday lives of 21st-century Americans, especially those who've achieved the American dream. Given the fact that your descent into homesteading meant a radical departure from your accustomed lifestyle, we think you did remarkably well as homesteaders.

Your house was well constructed, and the extra windows were a tribute to Adrienne's wisdom and Gordon's craftsmanship. Creating a foot-friendly ladder to the loft and a mouse-proof pantry for foodstuffs showed your skills at problem solving. Aine and Tracy's happy involvement in building a platform treehouse in which to while away their hours was reminiscent of the activities of nineteenth-century homesteading children and teens who built homes of their own. On the other hand, an average 1883 homesteading girl of fifteen or sixteen would have been far more interested in learning how to cook and clean and sew than you two were, but then the average 1883 homesteading girl of your ages would have been contemplating marriage and the start of a family within the next few years.

Given your backgrounds, we were not surprised to find you two -- as well as Adrienne -- upset at the idea of being deprived of cosmetics all summer long and horrified at Sue's announcement that menstrual periods would be taken care of by means of rags and safety pins. What did surprise us -- and pleasantly so -- was the way in which you two eventually let go of worrying about appearances and began to lose yourselves in what might have been your last opportunity to enjoy childish things, in the best sense of that phrase. And while there are no precedents for otherwise proper young women who ran around in their petticoats and camisoles in public during the Victorian age in which your homesteading experience was set, there are plenty of examples of young women who found in the West the freedom to do what they enjoyed, rather than what was expected of them. So, while we are glad that you did well with milking, we're not surprised that performing such chores at a set time and in a set manner didn't hold much interest for you. And while we're impressed that you, Aine, made a skirt and sewed every stitch with your own hands, we're not surprised that neither one of you found needlework and sewing half so attractive as running about barefoot and unencumbered in the out-of-doors and that both of you preferred digging a swimming hole and damming a stream to pickling beans and preserving berries.

Certainly you, Adrienne, set an excellent example as a homesteading wife, but as you discovered, such a life could be lonely and confining, despite the company of a husband who built you a lovely creekside workstation. You did an excellent job of putting fine foods on the table; your butter and cream were sweet and tasty and your pastries were legendary; your pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables and syrups dazzled us all; and your seasoning savvy helped turn a four-foot rattler into a memorable meal. Yet you were understandably insecure in your role as caretaker when Gordon began to lose weight and the children stayed sick. Also, we sense you were at a distinct disadvantage, faced with the task of inspiring not one, but two, teenagers to do their share of the never-ending "woman's work" essential to survival.

None of you seemed particularly in tune with the needs of cows, horses, or sheep, though you rightly assumed that your scant supply of hay and lack of shelter made selling the animals a better move than having them winter over. However, the plan for getting a horse all the way to Butte and providing for its care in the city over the winter months seems a bit flawed, given your lack of a wagon and Adrienne and the girls' total lack of experience in driving a horse. It would also have been more in keeping with the traditional homesteaders' way of doing things to have Gordon leave the claim to seek income in the city over the winter months while Adrienne and the children managed things back home. But there would have been serious questions about anyone's ability to survive on a homestead so ill prepared for the winter months.

Yet, you recorded many successful moments. Justin single-handedly slew and skinned out the rattlesnake, and he assisted Gordon in splitting wood for stove and still, caring for your productive flock of chickens, building fence, and building the root cellar. Aside from his lucrative archery booth at the Harvest Fair, Conor's direct contributions to the family's survival seem to have been fairly minor (perhaps in keeping with his age) -- with one important exception: catching fish in the neighbor's pond.

And that brings us to the unspoken topic: survival by any means. Certainly, Gordon, you're right in maintaining that there were outlaws and renegades aplenty on the far frontier, and it is true that such people tended to bend or break the rules at will, determined as they were to live life on their own terms. Our greatest disappointment came from hearing of this need within the family to do what you could to get around the project's rules and regulations, rather than finding inventive ways of living within the imposed constraints. It's obvious you had the skills and ingenuity to succeed within those constraints, given the way in which you built the chicken coop -- complete with its double troughs and clever roosts; created the vintage chicken yard fence and labor-saving watering system; planted, cultivated, and irrigated your garden; constructed your root cellar; outfitted your house; ran your still; designed your bathhouse and shower; filed for water rights and planned your ice harvest. There's no doubt in our minds that you and your family could have survived -- even thrived -- without ever straying from the hard rules imposed by a production crew dedicated to replicating an 1883 homesteading experience.

Indeed, hearing how you weathered adversity during that first snow when all your clothes were wet and you were miserably cold, there's no doubt in our minds but that you could have been stellar homesteaders. And yet, for reasons beyond our ken, you opted to sabotage your homesteading experience by matching wits with those who'd made the rules by smuggling in goods for your personal comfort (i.e., a 20th-century set of boxsprings), poaching fish, and conducting unauthorized trading with neighbors.

Does all this "artful dodging" mean you failed as homesteaders? Certainly not by your own definitions of success by any means, though we do think it's important to consider how the one consultant who's not yet spoken might weigh in on that question. Judge Winter would have no patience with why you did this or why you failed to do that. Judge Winter would be totally impartial, sending sleet and snow and freezing winds in through the cracks you never got around to chinking and up through the floors you chose not to insulate and cover. Judge Winter wouldn't let up, even after Gordon and Justin realized they'd never thought to learn how to make bread or prepare and cook a chicken before sending Adrienne off to Butte for the season. Judge Winter wouldn't postpone or cut short a ferocious blizzard just because the only wood left was unsawed logs buried under three feet of hard-packed snow or just because there was no food or water left in the house and no guide rope to help Justin find the root cellar to bring in more canned goods and meat or locate the stream so he could chop through the ice to the water underneath. Judge Winter wouldn't take pity when the first steps you took in those innovative but fragile snowshoes broke the threads and sent you knee-deep into the cold stuff. And over in Butte Judge Winter wouldn't have let up any earlier because Adrienne and the girls had discovered right away that female shopkeepers were unacceptable in what was fast becoming the biggest city west of the Mississippi or because their work as maids and washerwomen had ruined their hands and broken their spirits. For as thousands of other less-than-well-prepared Montana homesteaders came to find out, Judge Winter snows on the prepared and the unprepared alike, freezes the workers as well as the shirkers, and pauses not once to listen to complaints or excuses or cries of "it's not fair," but simply continues to winnow out those who are not well suited to frontier living.

Even so, if the truth be known, it's likely that Gordon and Justin would have managed somehow to get themselves into Butte before they froze to death and that once the family was reunited in a more familiar setting, Gordon would have found a way to survive -- and become a financial success -- whether by making rope beds or distilling white lightning! That's our bet for 1883 -- but our hope for 2001 and beyond is that everything you've learned about yourselves and your abilities during your stint as Montana homesteaders will empower each of you to make the most of whatever lies ahead.


II. Sue Cain

November 5, 2001

To the Clunes,

Does it seem like months since you left your home in Montana? I am writing to you about our time in your home out there on those beautiful plains. But as someone said, you can't eat the view. Many a homesteader tried it and failed and moved on to other enterprises. I have to admit I think you would have picked up and left before the winter snow flew. If you hadn't I think you would have wished you had. But let's recall that late afternoon and evening we had together. My responsibility was to look at your food stores, clothing, and bedding.

First, I want to say I really enjoyed your ingenuity and the creativeness you exhibited not only in your home and its decoration but the surrounding area. The spot Gordon created to work in down by the brook was delightful. I sure could have spent many delightful hours there. Also, the root cellar was excellent. I was a little concerned about being able to get into it when the snow came, but perhaps that would have been worked out. Your irrigation for the garden really improved on its productivity. Tracy, your telling of how your father helped plan out the system was a highlight in my visit. You had been able to put up the most potatoes and root crops. Also, Adrienne, your canned goods were great. But I wish you had some cabbage put up. There would have been a shortage of vitamin C for your family during the winter. You had a lot of eggs, but they would have kept better if you had them in the root cellar to keep them cooler.

In some ways not having large animals to take care of would have been a plus. But on the other hand, they would have provided meat if hunting became impossible. Not having a horse to get to the store would have been very difficult. Did you have butter stored? I don't remember seeing any. I remember extra lard and flour, which was good. The lard would have replaced the butter. With such a large family, clothing would have been difficult. The girls would need to make wool and/or quilted petticoats to help keep warm. All of you would have needed more wool clothes and probably another set of boots apiece. I was unable to get up the ladder, but did everyone have wool blankets? If money was available it would have been a good choice to purchase feather beds to sleep under.

All in all, as I stated in the beginning there were a lot of homesteaders who tried it and didn't make it or spent their first winters in town until they could get enough together to stay out over winter.

A book I have used as a reference for food amounts is LETTERS FROM A WOMAN HOMESTEADER. The woman writes in 1909 from Southwestern Wyoming. She lists the amounts of food she raised for her family and perhaps a hired man. She raised more than two tons of potatoes, half a ton of carrots, a large bin of beets, onions, turnips, and parsnips, and more that one hundred head of cabbages. She raised winter squash and pickled some of it. She grew beans and green tomatoes, from which she made a relish. She found gooseberries made a catsup "as good as any tomato." She milked 10 cows twice a day and sold enough butter to buy a year's worth of flour and gasoline. She raised enough chicks to replenish her flock, have all they wanted to eat, and some to eat during the winter. She also had turkeys for birthdays and holidays. I won't expect any of you to have produced like that, but it does give us an idea what people thought they needed.

A part of me wishes you could have been truer to the 19th century. The young ladies running around in their underwear would not have happened in 1883. As we discussed during training there were unspoken rules that especially women seemed to follow during that era. I am not saying everyone did, and of course you are not from that culture. We really can't go back in time. We take with us our 21st-century selves. You all looked so healthy, fit and trim, the way all of us Americans should look. I keep wondering how you have been able to readjust to life since you left.


III. Bernie Weisgerber

Cabin -- Not totally prepared for the winter. The chinking/daubing between the logs is loose on the exterior and missing on a lot of the interior (especially on the second story). The chinking space under the roof eaves on the second floor has no chinking and is wide open to the weather. The windows need to be finished and trimmed out to be tight to the weather. The double-hung windows don't come together properly at the meeting rails. The cabin floor needs to be covered to close cold air infiltration through cracks in the floorboards. Another serious problem will be caused by the garden irrigation system: flooding and heaving one corner stone pier on the cabin during the freeze/thaw cycles.

Fuel -- Have 2.5 cords of unsplit cotton firewood. Need 13-15 more cords of fir or pine. Need to split and cover all 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 Travel -- Gordon's plan is for only Justin and him to stay the winter. They will have no horses. The homemade snowshoes will not work as there is no cross-bracing and the laces are loose and won't support weight.

Comments: The Clune family has put a tremendous and impressive amount of work in and around their homestead. But some of their work efforts are misdirected to be prepared for the coming Montana winter. In all fairness, I think this misdirection is because the Clunes came to this homestead from a much warmer climate and just don't know what to expect from winter in Montana. I think that Gordon's plan of sending his family to Butte for the winter -- except for him and Justin -- is ill advised. He needs the large workforce at the homestead. The entire family can do and do get a lot of work done. I also think that Gordon needs Adrienne and the children near him to survive the long, hard winter, and prevent what we call "cabin fever." Again, I compliment their hard work and efforts.


IV. Rawhide Johnson

The Clune family probably didn't feel the need for the horses and milk cows as much as the homesteaders of 1883. Not yet having experienced the long, cold, snowbound environment of Montana in the winter, they couldn't even guess the true value of these animals to them. The horses are badly needed to skid in firewood for the winter and general transportation. Realizing that he didn't have enough food laid in for the winter months, he choose to sell his cow to the store for more provisions, which was good for the cow's sake, but probably made the winter much harder and longer for the Clunes. Part of the problem with keeping livestock was due to the drought conditions that they had during the summer and also outside stock eating their grass up. Overall, if they had an average or worse winter on this homestead, they would have had a hard time making it through the winter.


Brooks | Clune | Glenn

 

 


The Homesteaders
Animation of homesteaders
Media Showcase
Quiz

Pledge
The Video Diaries
email frontier house
Print this page
print this page email this url to a friend