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Young Pioneers

Short-lived television series based on Rose Wilder Lane’s Let the Hurricane Roar.

A.B.C.’s Young Pioneers, which returns to TC with a two-hour drama at 7 p.m. tomorrow, is such a pre-tested property with so many things going for it that it’s hard to see how it could fail. -John Vorhees, The Seattle Times, April 1978.

     
Little House on the Prairie (the television show) was already a hit in late 1975 when production began on a two-hour “Young Pioneers” movie, the work of producer Ed Friendly and writer Blanche Hanalis of Little House fame. It was to be the pilot for a projected television series based on Rose Wilder Lane’s book, Let the Hurricane Roar, a 1932 magazine serial in Saturday Evening Post and published the following year in book form.

The television movie would be the story of a couple who marry in their teens in their native Iowa and go west to settle in Dakota Territory. Its stars were Roger Kern and Linda Purl as David and Molly Beaton (his character was 18; hers was 16). As a tie-in to the television production, Let the Hurricane Roar (the book) was re-released as Young Pioneers (the book), and the names of the original book couple – who Rose Wilder Lane just happened to call Charles and Caroline – were changed to David and Molly. Their story would be a fight to settle the wilderness, to survive at all odds, through droughts, blizzards, grasshopper plagues, and corruption. It was also the story of two people in love, and of their love for the land. [Mobile (Alabama) Register, February 28, 1976] Sound familiar?

Young Pioneers was first shown as “The ABC Monday Night Movie” on March 1, 1976. In those days before you could save a show and watch it later, it appeared opposite The Rich Little Show, Joe Forrester, Rhoda, Phyllis, All in the Family, and Maude. It got good reviews, but wasn’t picked up for the fall season, even though it had been seen in over 17 million homes by over 40 million viewers. The Captain and Tennille won the time-slot. However, interest in Young Pioneers was strong enough that another two-hour movie was shown in December, the “Young Pioneers Christmas,” which was 37th in the weekly ratings. Newspapers kept reporting that Bill Cosby’s show, Cos, was a flop (it was 64th in the ratings) and would be replaced with Young Pioneers. In January, the original Young Pioneers movie was shown in two parts on consecutive nights (against 60 Minutes and The Wonderful World of Disney on one of the nights).

The two Young Pioneer movies continued in reruns, and in February 1978, it was reported that Young Pioneers had finally been picked up as a series, now to be produced by Earl Hamner, Jr. of The Waltons fame; the show was in its sixth year. Three episodes of Young Pioneers preempted the popular Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries television series for three weeks beginning in April 1978. The episodes shown were titled “Sky in the Window” (about David and Molly Beaton being held hostage by Indians), “A Kite for Charlie” (about Molly and David having to decide whether an operation will save a boy suffering from diphtheria), and “The Promise of Spring” (the story of Molly’s injury in a sudden prairie storm).

To the delight of young girls everywhere, Frank and Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew came back to television, and Molly and David didn’t. The show had aired opposite 60 Minutes and finished 53rd in the ratings, although Hamner’s other show (The Waltons) was said to be doing just about as poorly. But because of Hamner’s involvement, Young Pioneers was usually compared to The Waltons rather than to Little House on the Prairie. FYI, Little House had finished Season 4 in March with the wildly popular and memorable two-parter, “I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away), with Season 5 beginning in September.

It boiled down to the fact that Young Pioneers was just too depressing. The Waltons was successful because it showed happiness despite hardship. It showed a simple lifestyle that viewers longed to find. Young Pioneers only showed isolation, along with “plagues of locusts, sudden killing prairie storms, Indian attacks, dread disease, and the death of an only child” (Molly and David’s?). As the reviewer went on to comment, “The local graveyard would offer much more fun.” [Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, May 28, 1978.]

Sold in video format for many years, the two Young Pioneers movies were released on DVD in the 2000-teens, often packaged with other shows.

     

Young Pioneers