The American frontier in the 1800s offered an opportunity for adventurous people who wanted to break with convention and make something of themselves apart from the tight constraints of the organized communities in the east.
It was cheap and didn't require connections or education, just hard work and commitment.
You didn't need to follow many rules, and you could count on the encouragement of a government grateful that you were helping to expand the nation.
You didn't need to worry about messing up, because there was nothing much to mess up on the Great Plains.
It was a romantic dream, but doable - a way to exercise your abilities and maybe exorcise your demons.
Last week, at Juniata College, the mayor of a small rust-belt borough in western Pennsylvania outlined a similar opportunity.
York native John Fetterman came to Braddock near Pittsburgh as an Americorps worker early this century after the town had declined from prosperity about as far as a town can go.
"Complete and utter implosion," he told the audience at Juniata.
Braddock had been the location of Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill.
It grew to 20,000 people and employed 5,000 in the steel works.
In the 1950s, its downtown was thriving to the extent that it included 14 furniture stores.
But it began declining in the 1970s with the dissolution of the U.S. steel industry.
Eventually, it began to resemble a bombed-out city after Word War II, with rampant crime and a population below 3,000.
The low point was the loss of the town's hospital two years ago.
Braddock has been in the state's financial distress program - which Altoona recently entered - since 1988.
But Fetterman - a graduate of Albright College and Harvard who won his office by one vote in 2005 - has launched a variety of initiatives focused on putting youths to study and work and attracting urban homesteaders and businesses.
Jason Lott is co-owner of one of those new businesses, Ink Division screen printing.
He and his partner started their company on the South Side of Pittsburgh in a space that was "way too big and for way too much rent," Lott said.
That didn't work out, and they "retreated" to Lott's house in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh.
Then they saw an item in Craigslist for a building in Braddock that looked "intimidating" when they checked it out.
But intimidating in the right way:
Intriguing and unconventional, a challenge.
Not intimidating because of red tape or financial obstacles that would have sapped the life out of ambition.
It was 2,000 square feet - the second and third floors of a totally gutted four-story apartment building.
It was "quadruple the space, at half the price," Lott said.
The partners had heard stories about Braddock and were aware of the buzz.
Fetterman had made a name for himself, getting a writeup in the New York Times, attracting a $1.5 million ad campaign by Levi Strauss that featured Braddock townspeople.
So in a way, Braddock had become the place to be.
But people the partners knew wondered why they would consider moving into the blighted borough.
"Aren't you worried about crime?" some of them asked.
So in a way, it was not the place to be.
Overall, it was thrilling to go through with it.
And it has panned out.
The cheap rent and abundance of room made the enterprise "scaleable," so Lott and his partner were free to continue at "hobby" sales volume - or to expand and "see how far we could take it," Lott said.
There have been few distractions, and it has been easy on the nerves.
"It was kind of a 'what do we have to lose' scenario," Lott said. "A good place to come out and try without feeling we were risking too much."
The pair have received no incentive benefits except the inexpensive rent and haven't even dealt with Fetterman.
They are on a block with a biodiesel conversion business, a record studio and spaces for a band to rehearse and commercial art.
"The whole vibe of the scene and the town around it just works for us," said Lott, who with his partner had no prior business experience and who just happen to be good at making T-shirts.
The partners are "insanely proud," because they "started something on their own" and have kept it going.
It wasn't like taking a job in your father's paint store.
Lots of opportunity remains in Braddock, as 80 percent of the buildings downtown are vacant, although the town is probably not yet ready for businesses that require high-traffic, Lott said.
Patty Betar of the Altoona area attended the Fetterman talk and afterward showed the mayor a picture of her grandmother's house.
It turned out Fetterman had considered buying it at one point.
Betar's first home was in the borough, and she grew up nearby and went into Braddock frequently to visit her grandmother.
There were bakeries, theaters, restaurants, live poultry for sale, butcher shops and gas stations, as well as the furniture stores, she said.
The Carnegie library even had a pool, Betar said.
Recently, she was in Pittsburgh on a hill looking down at the borough.
She searched for the hospital, and it wasn't there.
"That was the last stand of the town, employment-wise," she said.
"Heartbreaking," she said.
Her grandmother's house was near the hospital, in one of the nicest neighborhoods.
The family had a vaudeville act called "Train of Carrs," a play on their last name.
They traveled through Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.
They danced once at the Mishler Theatre.
As a sequel, Betar's aunt ran a dancing school business in the house.
It had stained glass windows and fireplaces in every room and mahogany doors, she said.
Around 1987, after the last family member left, her uncle hired a contractor to remove the stained glass and store the windows in the basement for family members to take.
But vandals soon stripped the house of everything - fireplaces, toilets, sinks and doors.
Her uncle eventually sold the property to a woman who was going to turn it into a nursing home.
But the neighbors opposed those plans, because of concerns about parking, and they fell through.
It's still vacant, and there's a fence around the property.
Betar would be delighted if someone acquired the house and rehabbed it.
Jackie Stagiare, Betar's younger sister and a resident of Edgewood near Braddock, is a Fetterman fan.
"He's just an amazing power - a force," she said. "He wants to bring [Braddock] back from the ashes." He's doing it "inch-by-inch," he said.
That will take the young people he's been seeking, and their vitality, she said.
And it will take the art he's after, she believes.
Fetterman has been working with a well-known Pittsburgh chef who plans to start a restaurant in Braddock.
The best part about that is that the chef is moving his own young family in, Stagiare said.
In an era of political scandals it's good to see a politician who's "pure of heart," said Juniata student Ariel Lawver.
Fetterman doesn't seem to be using his post as a means to an end, having told the audience at Juniata that the "road to the governor's mansion doesn't run through Braddock," Lawver said.
She finds it "comforting" he doesn't know what he ultimately wants to do with his life, she said.
She doesn't either, she said - although she can see herself running a media campaign or teaching high school.
Fetterman's work with tiny Braddock is "very relatable," according to Alexis Waksmunski of Northern Cambria, a Juniata student.
She's studying politics and public policy, and most of the emphasis is on national and international topics, but a recent class on state and local government got her thinking about "what you can do in your area to help."
Fetterman is proof you can make a difference at the local level, she said.
Her ambition is to become a United Nations researcher in the area of humanitarian aid.
But the idea of working like Fetterman intrigues her.
Fetterman himself buys the pioneer analogy.
He'd rather be living in his poor, damaged community, trying to rebuild it almost from scratch than living in, say, Portland, Ore., making $400,000 a year and "dining in fine bistros," he said.
Pioneering requires a "leap of faith" in one's ability to hew a living out of the landscape, according to Jim Tuten, a professor at Juniata.
It requires bravery, he said.
The bravery that would allow a pioneer to venture into western Pennsylvania in the early 1700s is probably similar to what's required to make a home in the urban decay of Braddock now, Tuten said.
Homesteading requires acceptance of some risk, he said.
It also minimizes other risks, including financial risks and the risks created by complexity, according to Tuten.
It's also a way of proving yourself to yourself.
Or proving yourself to the doubters, he suggested.
Many entrepreneurs and inventors in Silicon Valley have testified to that motivation, he said.
Most of us seek life paths that are predictable and safe, according to Tuten.
But the promise of adventure and self-realization are potent motivators, he said.
They can play a role in restoring cities throughout the country, and in doing so, transform those cities "in an interesting and wonderful way," Tuten said.