Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch …

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch …

A family historian takes a hard look — literally — at her ancestors' lives.


You’d probably love to try out life in your ancestors’ shoes. But what if it involved backbreaking work, 110-degree heat and poisonous critters?

“I’ll never forget standing next to the woodpile and pinning the head of a rattle-snake to the ground with a rake,” says 42-year-old genealogy buff Lisa Cooke. She and her family — husband Bill and teenage daughters Vienna, Lacey and Hannah — beat out thousands of applicants to star on the PBS reality TV series “Texas Ranch House.” After a two-week boot camp, the California natives spent a sweltering Texas summer running an authentic 1867 ranch, complete with nine cowboys, a maid, 47,000 acres and 200 head of cattle.

Isn’t that a bit extreme for genealogy — why not just pick up a history book to learn about life in the past? Cooke explains she’d been exploring newspaper articles and other narrative accounts, but not finding much on her Texas frontier family. “But now, when I read about toting water, I know what the weight of the yoke and buckets feels like. Or when I read of cooking over the fireplace, I’ve felt the swing of the fireplace crane with a cast iron pot of stew hanging from it.” Even the most vivid social history can’t do that.

Roots research is more than a hobby to Cooke, who says, “It gives me a sense of place and purpose to know where I’m from.” Her home office is lined with meticulously labeled scrapbooks of photos and memorabilia, including her grandmother’s scribbled notes from the long-ago day when a homework assignment inspired 10-year-old Cooke to ask about their family. “She showed me all the really old, dusty photo albums that contained black-and-white photos of people I didn’t know,” Cooke recalls. She’s since built her family tree database to 5,000 names.

One ancestor in particular inspired Cooke when ranch life was hardest: Laura Annie Green, born in 1850, who farmed with her husband and raised six children in Hill County, Texas. “In the end, I knew my great-great-grandmother survived it,” Cooke says. “That knowledge helped me tremendously to persevere.”

Reality Bites

No cheesy rose ceremonies or tone-deaf singers here — just the resounding crash of harsh reality with romantic visions of cowboy life. “Texas Ranch House” <www.pbs.org/ranchhouse> follows 15 people back in time to an 1867 Texas cattle ranch, where they use period tools and work under historically accurate conditions tending livestock, building corrals, herding cattle and battling blazing heat to bring the animals to market — no 21st-century cheating allowed. As it captures the rigors of life on the frontier, the show illuminates changing society and the emerging ranching era in post-Civil War Texas.

The eight-part series from Thirteen/WNET New York and Wall to Wall Television (the same folks who produced “Frontier House” and “Colonial House”) premieres May 1-4 on PBS. See the Web site for airtimes and a peek behind the scenes.

The months filming “Texas Ranch House” turned Cooke into something of a champion for women such as Laura Annie Green and another ancestor, Louise Nikolowski Sporowski, a cook at California’s Trost Ranch in 1918, and the roles they played in shaping the United States. “We female genealogists look at a census record, and we see an occupation for the head of the household — typically the husband — and we see the repetitive ‘keeping house’ for the wife, or nothing at all,” she says. “Don’t let that fool you.” The show has left her eager to look even deeper into her roots. After all, what’s a little brick wall when you’ve faced down a surprised rattler on the Texas frontier?

From the June 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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