California pair ride the river on a shantyboat, gathering stories.
The Mississippi River has changed in many ways over the past century, becoming cleaner, less industrial and less economically essential. But there are still places where the banks are lined with houseboats.
“There’s folks who are river rats who’ve had their own river-rafting journeys starting in Minneapolis. Many of them have floated all the way down to New Orleans,” said Wes Modes, who is making his own journey down the Mississippi, collecting the history and stories of the people who live on the river along the way. “People have been universally recommending that we stop in Winona, where there still is an active shantyboat community — houseboat community is what you call it now.”
An artist and graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Modes is making a monthlong trip down the Mississippi with his shipmate, Kai Dalgleish, and their dog Hazel. They launched their boat on July 26 from Boom Island Park in Minneapolis, and they hope to make it down to the Quad Cities, on the Iowa-Illinois border.
The goal is to document the history of river people, from the vagrants who were once common on the Mississippi to modern-day houseboat dwellers.
Modes scheduled some interviews with academics, historians and community members before setting out. But he is also planning to interview people he and Dalgleish meet as they travel.
A few days after they set out, Modes was hanging out on the houseboat at a St. Paul dock when he ran into a fellow named Ed, an out-of-work roofer who was fishing.
“He lives in St. Paul not that far from the river,” said Modes, who ended up spending much of the day with Ed. “He comes down to the dock, and he’s like, ‘Well if I can’t work, I might as well spend my days doing something,’ and he just catches fish for his family.”
The boat that Modes and Dalgleish are sailing is in the style of a traditional shantyboat. More precisely, it’s a barge-bottomed, wooden-hulled houseboat, powered by a small engine from the 1970s.
From end to end the boat is 20 feet long and 8 feet wide. But with wide decks on the front and back, the inner cabin is barely half that size. It looks like an oversized playhouse with a loft for sleeping. Modes made it himself, with help from Dalgleish and others, using salvage and scrap materials for nearly every detail — from the redwood siding to the tin roof.
“It was important for me to have a place that felt like it was rooted in history,” Modes said. The boat also helps them connect with people who have memories of the river. “When you see it, you immediately start thinking, ‘Oh, my grandparents grew up on a shantyboat, and they told me stories. Let me tell you some of those stories.’ ”
To prepare for the trip and connect with people who know about river history, Modes made one prior visit to Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was through connections he made on that trip that he met Dawn Brodey, a St. Paul-based actress and houseboat resident.
“She took a houseboat down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans and then came back and bought another houseboat and now lives there.”
Modes, who is studying digital art and new media, is blogging about their journey and his encounters with strangers as they travel. For academics and others looking for a more comprehensive history, he is making videos of his interviews to create a historic archive in the oral history tradition.
“There are lots of people who are involved in various river projects … but not a lot who are either studying the history of river people or specifically the history of shantyboat communities,” Modes said. “It’s a really fabulous adventure to be floating on the shantyboat down the river, but really for me, the idea is it draws attention to river people’s history and stories.”
The trip will cost about $15,000, including the boat. Modes raised slightly over $5,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com, and he is self-funding the rest of the project.
The recreated shantyboat will be available as an installation piece when it’s not on the river. It will house the digital archive created on the journey, along with books about the history of houseboats and the Mississippi.
Oral history is experiencing something of a resurgence in recent years, from the national StoryCorps project — which collects oral history and airs selected stories on National Public Radio — to local Minnesota ventures. In 2012, the Scott County Fair debuted a tiny oral history trailer where people could share their memories of the fair.
For Dalgleish, an artist who’s studying ecology and evolutionary biology at Santa Cruz, the journey has other perks.
“Rivers are really interesting because they travel through these urban areas and through wild places. And along their banks they’re weedy and have natural, native species and invasive species and everything kind of mixed together,” Dalgleish said. “It kind of gives insight into what it was like here hundreds of years ago before it was really developed.”
Nearly half a century after the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Mississippi is cleaner than it has been in decades. And Modes believes that river communities are once again appreciating its benefits.
“Cities are starting to turn their face back to the river,” he said. But as someone who is fascinated by the history of shantyboats, which largely focuses on the relationship people on the fringes of society have with the river, Modes is worried that as the Mississippi is integrated into Minneapolis and St. Paul, it will become less accessible to those people.
“Who is the public? Do we mean we want to make the river accessible for people who are well-heeled and housed and look and smell and talk the right way?” Modes said. “Or do we want to make it available to people who have a lot less money and a lot less resources?”
For now though, Modes is focused on making it down the river and collecting shantyboat history before it vanishes from memory.
He and Dalgleish have already run into a few hitches. They towed the boat from California, and their pickup truck broke down in Salt Lake City. Then, the day before they were set to launch, the camera they were using to videotape interviews stopped working. Modes had to make a last-minute trip to buy a new one.
“I’m nervous about wind. I’m nervous about waves,” Modes said. “I’m nervous about hitting barges or barges hitting us.”
As if to validate Modes’ fears, the moment they launched, he put the motor in the wrong gear and gently backed the boat into the dock. But he quickly recovered, getting the motor going and steering down the Mississippi.
Dylan Peers McCoy is a freelance journalist.