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Huntsville Times: Fishing For Stories

AL.com
by Dennis Pillion

  • If you happen to see this 1940s-style shanty boat floating down the Tennessee River this week, don't be afraid to stop and say hello. (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • The boat was built by California-based artist Wes Modes, who is traveling America's rivers to document the stories and history of people who live and work along the rivers. And he'd love to know who he should talk to.  "The best contacts that we have are people along the river who say 'Oh, you've got to talk to this person, they're amazing'" Modes said.  Modes said they have collected more than 150 hours of video interviews so far on their expeditions. (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Last year, Modes took his shantyboat down the Mississippi River, starting in Minneapolis, Minn., and ending near St. Louis, Mo.  This year, he's floating down the Tennessee River. He started in Knoxville, Tenn. and crossed into northern Alabama on Monday, July 18, 2016. Modes is planning to finish his journey in Paducah, Kentucky by the end of August.  (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • While on his journey, Modes is recording interviews with people who've spent their lives living and working on the river. This photo is from an interview with Ben Duncan, 91, of Duncan's Boat Dock near Knoxville, Tenn. (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Modes and the crew do get to have fun and stay cool while out on the river. Here, shipsmate Lauren Benzy leaps into the Tennessee River.  (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Modes built his shantyboat based on historical riverboats like this one. "A lot of people in the mid-20th century and even 19th century were building these barge-bottom house boats," Modes said. "It literally looks like a barge, but small." (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Modes says the boat looks a little like a chicken coop.  That's probably because it's partly built from an actual chicken coop.  "I got all the materials from the dump or reclaimed sources," Modes said. "We even disassembled an old chicken coop to use the materials from it." (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • The shantyboat usually doesn't travel more than about 20 miles in a day, with its small, 15-horsepower motor. That gives the crew -- Modes, Lauren Benzy and Hazel -- more time to explore the areas around the river and meet people who live there.  (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Modes says it's important to capture the spirit of the river people before it's too late.  The rivers are changing, and so are the people who live along the riverbanks.  Anna Mae Davis, a houseboat resident near Latsch Island, Minn., is one of those interviewed for the project.   (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • "I'm really interested to talk to people who don't represent the mainstream cultural story," Modes (pictured here) said. "Rivers are more gentrified than they have been. In the past it was literally just the sewer for these towns. "The rivers become increasingly white and increasingly monied, and that means the river communities that contained a more diverse population -- poor people, people of color, native people -- those stories are lost." (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Modes says there are obvious differences between traveling in the Midwest and being in the South, but he's more interested by the similarities. "People who live on the Tennessee River or the Ohio River, or the Mississippi, or even the Yukon River, have similar concerns," he said. "People are concerned about their water quality and pollution. They're interested in the effect that big boats have on their shore, how does damming a river affect native fish and what is the threat of invasive species.  "Those are all concerns that come up for me when I do interviews." (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Necessary supplies for a river trip: fresh flowers, Underwood typewriter and rye whiskey. (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • Modes updates the Secret History web site as ships hound Hazel supervises. (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • The shantyboat is also traveling on dry land for exhibitions throughout its travel areas.  It's scheduled to visit the Kennedy Douglass Center for the Arts in Florence, Ala. August 5-8.  This photo is from a 2015 appearance at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, Minn.  (Courtesy Wes Modes)
  • During the exhibitions, visitors can sign a guest log, see how life in a shantyboat works, or even leave their own river stories to be included in the project archive.  (Courtesy Wes Modes)

 

For more on “A Secret History of America’s River People,” watch the YouTube video here or see the project’s web site http://peoplesriverhistory.us/

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