07 June 2004
With the technology of the 17th century, settlers in colonial America invented the tools they needed to establish a self-sufficient society. Four centuries later, two dozen modern-day Americans find out the hard way what early colonial life was really like. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, TV viewers witnessed this time-travel experiment in The Colonial House, a series that might be more adventurous than reality TV.
The year is 1628, and the place is Plimoth Plantation on the misty coast of Maine. Everything here - the games, the clothing, the food, the furniture - are all authentic 17th century props, except for the TV cameras.
Colonial House is public television's latest hands-on history series, capturing the drama of everyday life in a small colony, specially re-created by the staff of the Plimoth Plantation Museum. From more than 5,000 applicants, 26 were chosen to participate in the time-travel experiment. These hardy souls had to leave their 21st century sensibilities behind and, for five months, live like America's early settlers did.
"I think it was very challenging. I grew up in cities and I had never really had any experience even on a farm," said Philadelphia children's museum educator Julia Friese.
In 1628, 25-year-old Julia Friese, is a servant in the colonial governor's home.
"This is my spatula, one of my spatulas. I also made another one I'll show you. This is my angled spatula, she said. Two really large wooden spoons that are kind of useless. We don't have forks, we use knifes, spoons and fingers "
"It was one of the most amazing challenges in my life to suddenly find myself having to milk goats every morning, to gather chicken eggs and cook from scratch over an open hearth," she added.
Baptist minister Jeff Wyers participated in this time-travel experiment as the Colony's governor, joined by his wife and three children. Software engineer Jeff Lin and actress Amy-Kristina Herbert were among the others who traded their modern day jobs to serve as merchants, servants and farmers.
Colonial House executive producer Beth Hoppe found it amazing how quickly the participants became focused on just surviving. She says even the children adapted well without their favorite TV shows and snack foods.
"We had all together five children who participated, Ms. Hoppe said. Eight was our youngest participant. The kids were just amazingly adaptable. They were active participants. There was so much work to do just to get everybody fed, to get animals taken care of, that kids were part of the labor force."
Colonial House in the second living history project for Ms. Hoppe. A few years ago, she produced the Peabody Award-winning 1900 House. She says participants at Plimoth Plantation had two weeks of training on everything they needed to know, from what the roles of women would be, to how to cook a dinner for 12 people using only dried peas.
Mr. Hoppe said, "They were there for five months, we edited it down to only an eight hour TV story, but it's that five month experience that makes it, I think, a unique approach in trying to portray the history of that time and to see what life was like on a really daily basis."
At the end of the five months, the colony's work was evaluated by experts.
"Experts looked at everything, from how productive they were with exports, to how much food they had in the storehouse, to how well they had stuck to the laws of the time," Ms. Hoppe said.
The time-traveling colonists succeeded not only in meeting the experts' standards, but also in correcting some misconceptions about the colonial era.
"I thought that most people came [to America] for religious reasons, she said. They dressed in dark clothing and were fairly serious, once a year they had a celebration called Thanksgiving. But none of that was really true. They wore brightly colored clothing. They drank. They danced. They enjoyed life. At the same time religion played a bigger role in each and every person's life than it may today in modern America."
"The 17th century was the great age of English sermons. With no newspapers or theater and few books, the preacher had a unique platform to influence and entertain the colonists ," a narrator says.
Though it was hard for Julia Friese to work as a servant in the colony, she says participating in the project was an experience that will stay with her forever.
"I'm very lucky to have two different perspectives on everything I'll experience throughout life now, Ms. Friese said. I have my 21st century perspective and I can also imagine the 17th century perspective, everything from women's rights to food preparation. I can still go to the grocery store today and I'll see a pre-packaged chickens that are all clean and in plastic and I can remember what it was like to have to kill the chickens."
Ms. Friese says going back to the 17th century makes her appreciate living in the 21st, but she admits she'll miss the strong sense of community that was part of life in the year 1628.