The Secret History of American River People

An Anthro-Historical Artist’s Journey Through the History of a River


Secret History is a journey to discover and collect the lost narratives of people who live and work on the river from the deck of a recreated shantyboat and present these stories through web-based digital archives and a touring art installation.

Find out more about the Secret History project here.

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The Producer’s Journal: Catching up

A note about the Producer’s Journals: They make either super awesome insider geek info or the most boring blog ever, depending on your inclination. Your mileage may vary. So if you are the type of person who watches the Making Of segment after the main feature on the DVD, read on…

I was getting stern reminder emails from my production professor Irene Lusztig asking about the whereabouts of the Master Log I’d not yet created. Panic. I hoped she’d believe my sad little mea culpa email that I am not normally a flake.

I spent the weekend learning the ins and outs of this logging and ingest process. Now I can definitely say with confidence that I am a semi-informed neophyte. I know just enough to be dangerous. Maybe I’ll stop for a moment and make another backup of my source material.

For the last two weeks I’ve been struggling with getting everything done despite my ignorance of production processes and terminology. Slowly I am learning.  To my immense relief Irene walked us through the meaning and concept of a bunch of video production concepts: shot list, master log, ingest, transcode, logging, selects, rough cuts, and so on.

For the Master Log, Irene says:

The Master Log is not a shot-by-shot log, it’s a scene-by-scene (or shoot-by-shoot) log. So less detail, more big-picture information… It’s more detail than the written scene list that you’ve put on the blog (because it includes additional information fields like date, tech notes, location, duration, log / transcribe status, etc), but much less detail than Premiere where you are logging each shot.

That’s a relief, because I was imagining the pain of detailing the hundreds of individual establishing and detail shots. Okay, that’s one of tonight’s many tasks.

Secret History Master Log
Secret History Master Log

I was having some issues with Prelude, Adobe’s ingest utility (unexpected and repeated crashing on startup), so I switched over to Adobe Bridge to do my renaming and reorganization.  It worked well and had decent facilities for automated batch renaming.  Following that with some manual renaming and reorging, my archive was in good order.

Secret History Raw Archive
Secret History Raw Archive


After that, importing it into Adobe Premiere, allowed me access to most of the metadata that would have been accessible via Prelude.

So in the end, I had an archive that had decent filenames and good metadata and was imported into my editing program Premiere.

I also set up my folder structure one level above the raw files in a way I thought would be useful in the long term:

Secret History Project
 |  +--Field Recordings
 |  +--Libraries
 |  +--Voiceover
 |  +--Early Preview
 |  +--Interview Excerpts
 |  +--SHARP 20140420 At Boat
 |  +--SHARP 20140508 Audio Sacto Delta
 |  +--SHARP 20140725 Interview Pat Nunnally
 |  +--. . . and so on
 +--Rough Cuts
 |  +--Early Preview
 |  +--Interview Excerpts

Which looks like this:

Secret History Meta Archive
Secret History File Archive

Thinking about a production schedule, a good bit of this is dictated by the pace of Irene’s production class:

Oct 8   archive cloned, transcoded, and backed up
Oct 15 scene list completed; transcription started; master log started
Oct 22  transcription completed; master log completed; production schedule established; filesystem renamed/reorged; archive logged into Premiere; sync sound begin; cutting selects begins
Oct 29 sync sound completed; cutting selects completed; cutting rough scenes begins
Nov 5 cut rough scenes started; assembling rough archive completed
Nov 12 cut rough scenes completed; cutting down scenes started
Nov 19 first assembly completed; outline of scenes/paths completed
Nov 26 revise individual scenes
Dec 3 outline of revised structure of scenes/paths completed
Dec 10 final rough cut of scenes and assembly completed

So I have a master log, a workable file structure, good filenames, everything ingested and logged into Premiere, and a production schedule. I think that takes me up to where I was supposed to be a week ago.

Meanwhile, my production team met (Kyle, Monica, and Regina). We are almost done with transcription. Whew, big job. with something like 16 hours of video. Everyone is writing production blogs, some of which we may feature here.

We had a brainstorming session to determine what things needed doing for the project and what things we thought we could accomplish this quarter.

Project Team Brainstorm

Just out of curiosity, I asked who of the production team was interested in the possibility of working on the project next quarter as well. It was unanimous. So we agreed that after two quarters working together, we’d have to make a Secret History Production Team T-shirt.


2014-08-08 15.53.28 HDR

The Producers Journal: A Week of Amnesia and Delirium

It was a strange week of going through the motions with a strange kind of stoner consciousness. A delirium possibly due to just pure information overload: classes, appointments, TAship, urgent communications from students, faculty, staff, and far away project contacts, an exponentially growing TODO list, plunging into grant season, herding the cats of my thesis committee, pitching the project to museums for next summer, creating a project prospectus, and prep for four exhibitions in the next four weeks. Whew! The end result is a sort of frenetic forgetfulness, missed meetings, late assignment, fevered and troubled sleep, and regularly walking into rooms or getting on the computer to do something that I no longer remember what.

Storeboats lashed together near Louisville, Kentucky
Storeboats lashed together near Louisville, Kentucky

Time for some deep breaths. Breathe. Breathe. And time to forgive myself for a little scatter-brainedness while I do an excitingly impossible number of things for a project I find inspiring and meaningful.

I did manage to pull together my undergrad research group that is working exclusively with me on the Secret History project. The independent study is titled “Post-modern History and New Media Production” with readings from Zinn, E.P. Thompson, Georges Lefebvre, and possibly Jean-Francois Lyotard and George Rudé. The project group will be working together to accomplish the ambitious goals of the project this quarter, including assembling the research archive, mapping out the new media component, and cutting together possible minidocs. Right now, the project group is also helping me organize and transcribe the archive.

My shots are already reasonably organized. Though with the secondary (environmental, detail, and establishing) shots, a more detailed catalog should be made. I’ve gotten a start on it, and it is an arduous task.

Ed Hoffman owner of Ed's No Name Bar interviewed in Winona, MN
Ed Hoffman owner of Ed’s No Name Bar interviewed in Winona, MN

One fun thing I did is update the project blog a few times. I did some gentle research on historical flatboats on the river and a post showing some of the faces of the people I interviewed for the archive.

Wes Modes interviews Billy Curmano

Beautiful People I’ve Interviewed

Billy X. Curmano, who swam the length of the Mississippi River, Interviewed in Winona, MN
Billy X. Curmano, who swam the length of the Mississippi River, Interviewed in Winona, MN

With help from numerous people who work and live on the Mississippi River, I am creating an ongoing digital archive of personal histories — the lost stories of river people and river communities. I’ve interviewed Upper Mississippi artists, boathouse residents, scientists, researchers, historians, business owners, and adventurers. I use digital and social media to present and connect river people and their stories to those far from the river.

These are just some of the people I interviewed as part of A Secret History of American River People.

Anna Mae Davis interviewed in Winona, MN
Anna Mae Davis, Winona houseboat resident, interviewed in Winona, MN
Pat Nunnally interviewed in Minneapolis, MN
Pat Nunnally, coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s River Life program, interviewed in Minneapolis, MN

Lauren Donovan interviewed in Hastings, MN
Lauren Donovan, who kayaked the length of the Mississippi River, interviewed in Hastings, MN. See more of Lauren’s interview.
Ken Lubinski, USGS River Ecologist, interviewed in La Crosse, WI
Ken Lubinski, USGS River Ecologist, interviewed in La Crosse, WI . See more of Ken’s interview.

Edwin Hill, Mississippi River historian, interviewed in La Crosse, WI
Edwin Hill, Mississippi River historian, interviewed in La Crosse, WI
Ed Hoffman, owner of Ed's No Name Bar, interviewed in Winona, MN
Ed Hoffman, owner of Ed’s No Name Bar, interviewed in Winona, MN
Kali Arline, Winona houseboat resident, interviewed in Winona, MN
Kali Arline, Winona houseboat resident, interviewed in Winona, MN



History of Flatboating and a Charming Educational Film

The Steamboat Times website has collected some interesting photographs and stories of early flatboats, the precursors of shantyboats. Flatboats were simple shallow-draft boats that allowed farmers to take their surpluses downriver after the harvest in the unpredictably low water of late summer and fall.




Many of these flatboats were covered to protect the crews and cargo from sun and rain as these beautiful photographs show.




“Storeboats” were flatboats that were literally mobile stores, traveling from one town to the next selling manufactured goods and produce. They were usually built for a one-way journey that would take their proprietor’s and crew away from home for a number of months. The name of the proprietor would be painted on the side, and at the end of the venture the crew would be paid off, to return upriver by steamboat or train. However, a successful owner might also hire a steamer to tow his storeboat back upriver, especially if his storeboat was well-built and he planned to repeat the exercise.

This photograph depicts two storeboats lashed together at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880. Lashing two boats was a common practice, and probably reduced labor costs, maximized piloting skills, and encouraged the townsfolk to visit the stores.

At the end of the journey downriver, flatboats were typically sold for their timbers. The proprietor would then take return home via steamboat, train, or mule.

These covered flatboats are the direct ancestors of the shantyboats used by displaced agricultural workers, factory and mine workers, migrating families, sex workers, and bootleggers on rivers on the fringes of town throughout the U.S.

William Glasier Crop
William Glasier Crop
Family on Houseboat
Family on Houseboat

This “Instructional sound film” by  Erpi Classroom Films, Inc. with the help of Thomas D. Clark from the University of Kentucky is part of the Prelinger Archive on

the lost narratives of river people, river communities, and the river itself