The vessel arrived in the night, its passengers weary from a rough passage, but excited about beginning life in the New World. At dawn, they could see a quiet cove beneath a small village, and past that to fir trees and granite rocks. The plantation’s governor set out in a small fishing boat and guided the group to shore where he and the settlers would work the land, trade with the local Indians and confront the elements.
Except for the 20th century TV crew and cameras on the bow of a lobster boat, this could have been a scene out of early American history, when English immigrants came to unfamiliar territory in search of religious freedom and economic security. Instead, it was part of “Colonial House,” a PBS “hands-on-history” series being filmed through October in Machias. Shooting Down East began in recent weeks.
Set in the 1600s, “Colonial House” is the latest installment in the reality TV show trend that includes series such as “Survivor,” “The Bachelor” and “Fear Factor.” PBS ran the popular “reality” history shows “Warrior Challenge” about gladiators and other fighters during ancient times; “Manor House” about an English family in an Edwardian country house; and “The Frontier House” about three homesteader families in Montana. “The Frontier House,” the highest-rated series on public TV in the last five years, was the first of these series to be filmed in America.
“Colonial House” is the second. The living history show is a joint project of New York’s WNET and Wall to Wall TV Production Company in London.
In an effort to maintain an environment as close to colonial days as possible, WNET has kept most information about “Colonial House”, including the location under a blanket of secrecy. The goal, they say, is to keep the settlement undisturbed by modern influences.
“Because they are early in the filming and the nature of the show is to have a living experience as close to the past as possible, it’s important to keep modern-day influences out of their realm,” WNET spokeswoman Debra Falk said Monday.
A 24-hour security guard patrols the gate to the Machias area site where a production crew has set up shop and where “colonials” are living without contact to the outside world.
Except for the din of lobster boats.
In a pre-production meeting with local fishermen earlier this year, producers sought to have the cove where the settlement is located closed to clamming and lobstering during filming from June to mid-October. The 12 lobstermen who regularly fish in the cove did not agree to the arrangement and continue to haul traps, according to a local fisherman who asked not to be named.
Clamming has been closed, however, for reseeding and to accommodate “Colonial House,” according to Michelle Mason, shellfish program coordinator at the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“Being from New York, they didn’t understand that fishing is year-round,” a Machias fisherman said. He pointed to a large tower in the distance. “I’m surprised they didn’t ask to have that removed, too.”
A home owner who lives on the unpaved road leading to the site complained about speeding cars, wear and tear on the road by heavy machinery, and the posting of “do not enter” signs.
“I’m not at all against it,” he said of the “Colonial House” project. “I’m just afraid that they are going to pack up and leave and we will have to fix the road after them.”
Generally, area residents have been helpful and accepting of the strangers in their town. Some have declined the opportunity to assist with the show, but others – a game warden, medics, fishermen, contractors and construction workers – have worked on the production. Some said they had been asked informally or contractually not to speak publicly about the project.
Nevertheless, local observers report that as many as 16 “colonists,” and possibly more, are participating in the project. The “cast” members for the show were chosen on the basis of their mental and physical ability to endure the rigors of 17th century life for five months. They were to receive training in old-fashioned technology, safety, and historical authenticity before shooting started, according to the “Colonial House” Web site.
For “Frontier House,” WNET chose three pioneering families from 5,000 applications. One family member was Sanford native Kristen McLeod, who was married during the filming of the show.
For “Colonial House,” locals report, the colonists are living in four wooden, mud-floor houses with thatched roofs. Their village sits atop a bushy, granite rise that once was harvested for blueberries by Indians, but has become overgrown with alders in recent years, according to an abutting property owner.
WNET would not confirm details, but area residents said buildings were constructed in Massachusetts, hauled to Maine and were erected before the “cast” arrived in June. Crops such as corn were apparently planted prior to the crew’s arrival.
A Machias resident who lives near the settlement said he would be surprised if anything but blueberries could be grown on the land because it is so rocky.
While some food was provided for them upon their arrival, the colonists are also responsible for growing and acquiring food from the wild, local sources say.
According to the “Colonial House” Web site, filming takes place three or four days a week, with a TV crew following the settlers, and small video-diary cameras are furnished in the home for individual use.
“Colonial House” is scheduled to air in 2004, according to a February story in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer newspaper. WNET is rebroadcasting “Frontier House” on PBS in October. At the moment, Maine Public Broadcasting does not have the show on its fall lineup.