Knoxville Mercury: Shanty Dreams: A Quest for the Forgotten Stories of the Tennessee River

Knoxville Mercury
by Clay Duda

Modes puffs on a cigar celebrating the launch of his third installment of his ongoing art project: The Secret History of American River People. He spent the last two summers traveling the upper Mississippi River. Now he's on the Tennessee.

Photo by Clay Duda

“What the hell have I gotten myself into?” is all I can think as I prepare to board the shantyboat Dotty. This thing doesn’t even look like it could float, much less survive a 652-mile trek down the Tennessee River. But here it is, motored in from California and plopped in the water at Volunteer Landing, ready to embark on the meandering, months-long journey ahead.

The homemade houseboat attracts voyeurs like flies. It basically looks like a shack on a raft, and by the simplest definition that’s what it is—a handmade vessel formed mostly from reclaimed materials: wood salvaged from the landfill, a repurposed 100-year-old chicken coup, and an assortment of found objects from federal mining claim signs to aging single-pane windows and a rusty ol’ tin roof. Paddle boarders venture over from the nearby landing for a closer look. Jet skis pass and circle for a double-take, a sight to be repeated by swarms of maritimers in the coming days and weeks. A boating enthusiast walks out onto the dock at Volunteer Landing Marina intent on learning specifics about its construction. Did you buy that thing? No, we built it. What’s the hull made of? Mostly douglas fir and fiberglass. What kind of motor you got on that thing? A late-’70’s Mercury, named Freddie.

Onboard, Captain Wes Modes runs down the checklist. First mate Lauren Benz makes final preparations. Communication is key, both of them agree, and so is being nice and respecting each other’s space. There should be music. Oh, and let’s pay attention to safety so we all make it off of this river alive. Talk to each other and offer warnings when things go awry—because things will go awry.

One of the first lessons learned is that there’s no room for stowaways on this voyage. The entirety of the boat measures just 20 feet by 8 feet, and living quarters inside the house accounts for about half of that. If I’m going to make this trip, even hitching along for just the first few days, I’ll have to learn the ropes and become part of the crew. I get a crash course in maritime maneuvering 101. Port is left, starboard right. You always do the over-under maneuver when coiling rope so, in a pinch, you can toss a line to shore without tangle. There’s the bow and the stern, and something about staying between the green and red the barrels that line the riverway so you don’t run aground. I don’t fully understand, but I nod and say I’m up for the challenge.

Over the next few months Captain Modes, a California artist from Santa Cruz, and a revolving cast of shipmates are going to pilot this ramshackle boat down the Tennessee River in search of history. They’re seeking out stories about people and towns tied to the river, of the forgotten families who once lived in not-dissimilar homemade river boats and eked out a living on the Tennessee. The tales of these folks and others, now mostly a relic of Americana folklore, are the types of “secret histories” Modes hopes to capture in interviews, videos, Instagrams, and artists’ renderings.

He calls his project, aptly, The Secret History of American River People. It’s a multi-year endeavor that keeps building on its own history. He’s spent two summers already piloting the upper Mississippi, and has now set out on the Tennessee. Along the way he’ll play host and be hosted by people of all walks of life, archive some stories and folktales for posterity, and engage in a variety of art exhibits, interactive installations, and lectures.

Today, he and his crew are shoving off from Knoxville.

Lauren Benz pilots the shantyboat Dotty along the Tennessee River.

Lauren Benz pilots the shantyboat Dotty along the Tennessee River. Photo by Clay Duda.

Secret History of American River People

Photo by Clay Duda

Anarchism and Mimosas
Downtown Knoxville rises high on the hills above the Tennessee as the shantyboat Dotty putters beneath the Gay Street Bridge, then passes under Henley Street as Thompson Boling Arena comes squarely into view through the shack’s front door. The kudzu-covered south shore seems to rise even higher as we make our way down the green-tinged river. Construction dust from the former Baptist Hospital site gives way to imposing rock faces overlooked by costly apartments.

First-mate Lauren “Benzy” Benz is at the wheel, getting her own crash-course in piloting the cumbersome craft. She is an artist and animator also living in Santa Cruz, and Modes’ partner in life and at sea. She is the first of five crew members who will help capture stories and keep the shantyboat on course throughout the trip. The steering wheel isn’t quite aligned, so you have to feel the ebb and flow of the houseboat, and the ebb and flow of the river, to keep due course. That often means a steady zig-zag pattern as we make our way down river, complicated by the wake left by passing speed boats and some fishermen.

“Goodbye Knoxville!” Modes says as we arch along the waterway past the University of Tennessee campus. “We stole one of your reporters!”

It takes more than a half-hour to make it around UT proper and sail under the Alcoa Highway overpass. The ship isn’t equipped with a speedometer, but Snapchat tells me we’re cruising at a steady 4.2 mph.

The cabin contains just about everything you’d expect to find in a full-size house: a couch, a small kitchen table and two chairs, a loft above for sleeping, an outhouse outback, and a dog named Hazel. The walls are lined with books and other knickknacks, a surprising array of amenities given the tight confines. Oil-burning lanterns hang by the front and back doors, a ladder fastened to the wall offers access to the small loft nest above, and a rug covers the center floor. There’s a propane stove with two burners, a working sink, and a small plastic bucket packed with ice, a coconut, a bottle of champagne, and grapefruit juice. On the back roof a solar panel charges the ship’s batteries.

Cleared of the city’s trappings, it’s time to celebrate. Mason jars fill with champagne and grapefruit juice with a splash of lime. “A Phillips with a twist,” Benzy coins, an alternative take on a regular screwdriver. (Some of us have substituted gin for champagne.) Modes snaps a photo to send to his mom—and Instagram.

Modes and Benzy pick up on a conversation about anarchism: what does it mean and what do we, as anarchists, want? “I always say it’s the free association of autonomous people working cooperatively as equals to create a world without domination through direct action and mutual support,” Modes explains. “It’s a belief to be autonomous, but also support others. There’s never a separation between an individual and the community.” I don’t disagree.

A short time later a deep-hulled speedboat comes roaring past us port side (that’s to the left!) blaring country music. A woman wrapped in an American flag towel waves at us with one hand, the other clutching an iPhone to capture video evidence of the shantyboat. I wave back and wait for the wake, a huge double-set of waves that crash over the bow (that’s the front!) of the ship. We teeter totter and motor on.

Inside this whimsical vessel everything seems to have its place. Rubber tire tubes have been stretched and fastened across the face of each bookshelf cubby, a DIY fixture that offers a surprising amount of stability as the small ship thrashes to and fro in the water. But there’s a freedom knowing these rules of organization, or any others, could be broken or reimagined on a whim. This journey is less about structure and more about the organic nature of existence, a folklorist quest to capture stories but also create them. It’s a search for tales of an earlier time, but also a reincarnation of them.

By late afternoon we’re pulling into Duncan Boat Dock in West Knoxville. Our first day on the river and we haven’t even made it out of the city proper, though the old-timey feel of this 76-year-old harbor is like a page turned back in East Tennessee history.

“Some people told us we should talk to Mr. Duncan—or is it Capt. Duncan?” Modes says. “I’m told he and some other old guys sit around on the dock and swap lies all day!”

Ben Duncan, the proprietor of this boat dock, has run the place for more than 40 years, since taking over for his dad in 1974. He’s 91 years old now, and everybody who walks through the doors of his small bait and tackle shop seems to know him by name. Homegrown corn, okra, squash, and South Carolina peaches sit out front.

This is what’s left of the family farm, and Duncan still lives in the old farmhouse his kinfolk built on the property back in the 1800s, he says.

“I went off to war [World War II] and came back and the farm was underwater,” Duncan says, a result of the Tennessee Valley Authority damming the river. “We had to move a barn, but otherwise we haven’t done much with it. The boats have gotten bigger. We sale 2,000 gallons [of gas] a week now!”

“Rara Avis”. Photo by Clay Duda

He’s hard of hearing, the result of a war injury, but there are plenty of other Duncans around helping out in the shop and happy to answer questions about the river and family history. Today we meet four generations. There’s Diane, Ben’s niece; Mike, who is Diane’s son, and his wife Pam; then there’s Wit, a boy of 5, and a gaggle of other kids running in and out of the boat—so many I lose tracks of numbers and names.

“I got a lot of ancestors, but I’ve managed to kill most of them,” Ben Duncan says with a laugh.

Around dusk two guys show up at the dock. John Pittenger, of Maryville, and Jim Goddard, of Strawberry Plains, have tracked the shantyboat crew from Volunteer Landing to Duncan Boat Dock after learning Dotty had headed downstream earlier in the day. They’ve sought out Modes and Benzy to tell their own DIY rafting tales. In 1965, when the two friends were just 16 years old, they built their own shantyboat and set sail on Douglas Lake. They named it Rara Avis, which means “rare bird” in Latin.

With the onset of night a light breeze blows across the cove, a few faint stars twinkling overhead. The dull glow of gas lanterns and a few electric bulbs illuminate the yellow interior of the shantyboat Dotty, enveloped by the pale blue of the early night sky. Through the house windows, overhung by drapes, Benzy and Modes undertake typical chores before bed, cleaning dishes, brushing teeth, finishing off a bottle of homemade plum wine.

That’s when I realize; This is art!

Wes Modes talks with Ben Duncan of Duncan Boat Dock in West Knoxville, Tennessee.

Wes Modes talks with Ben Duncan of Duncan Boat Dock in West Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by Clay Duda

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Photo by Clay Duda

Art and Adventure
Wes Modes tells me that his hobo nickname is “Big Cakes” as he flips a pancake in the cast-iron skillet aboard the shantyboat Dotty. I can’t tell if he’s joking, but judging by the quality of our banana-peach-pancake breakfast it’s a title well earned. And he has some experience hobo-ing on land and water. This shantyboat thing isn’t such a gimmick. More than a decade ago he set out on his first bona-fide river odyssey, a week-long float down the fast-flowing Missouri River with a group of friends. They called it punk rafting, and it seemed he was on to something. A year later he floated California’s Sacramento River, leaving his hodge-podge vessel on its banks near Colusa for a new crew of adventure-seekers to salvage.

Shantyboat Dotty got its start in 2012, when Big Cakes concocted the idea to build something a little more stable than his earlier crafts.

“I was building the boat before I came up with the concept for this project,” he explains. “I wanted more adventure. I wanted more excitement. That’s why I started building the boat. It was an escape from my crappy library job.”

But as he thought through his ambitions Big Cakes didn’t just want to cruise the river, taking advantage of folks’ hospitality along the way. He wanted to give something back, he says, an idea that eventually developed into this ongoing odyssey and art project.

Dotty is a replica 1940s-era shantyboat, not unlike the type some families a generation ago called home along the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and other American rivers. It took two-and-a-half years of research, scavenging, tinkering, and building to complete the shantyboat Dotty. Her first long voyage was in the summer of 2014, when Big Cakes and crew embarked on a section of the upper Mississippi. He returned the following year, conducting more than 50 total interviews during two summer voyages. Now, he’s on the Tennessee.

Out of all the rivers crisscrossing the United States, Big Cakes set his sights on the Tennessee because of its lore and history.

“Well, after the upper Mississippi I decided on the Tennessee, which I’d been interested in ever since readingSuttree,” he says. (For those few yet uninitiated, Suttree is a semi-autobiographical novel by Cormac McCarthy about giving up a life of privilege to make a life on the Tennessee River.) “The Ohio River was probably an obvious choice [after navigating the Mississippi], but I thought the Tennessee would be more personal.”

When most people think of fine art, visions of gallery walls lined with paintings, photos, or installations are likely to come to mind. That’s part of Big Cakes’ modus operandi as well, and while he does have several talks and exhibitions scheduled in towns throughout his trips, it’s not the only or even most prominent component of his art.

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Photo by Clay Duda

That’s where Dotty comes in. According to his mission statement: “The shantyboat serves as the primary artistic focus of the project, serving not only as the expedition vessel but the project library and archive. Visitors to the Secret History exhibition can explore the archives, see excerpts of interviews, explore the physical library of river-related books and materials, explore the boat, and talk with the artist.”

Ultimately he’d like to see his growing trove of river stories turned into a series of books and documentaries, though he says the project has many layers and avenues for sharing different experiences. It’s still evolving. He hopes it will cast light onto these fading narratives but also lead folks to think about their own, present-day relationship with the river.

“I hope people reconsider what it means to have a river and ask hard questions about who has the privilege of access to the river,” he says. “I mean, we just passed 20 miles of McMansions [coming out of Knoxville]. And we can get all romantic about people living in shantyboats 50 years ago, but then people don’t really get romantic about people living under bridges now.”

In this way, life aboard shantyboat Dotty is like living in a gallery, a floating art installation tying up soon at a dock near you. Many of his exhibitions center on Dotty, while there is often an accompanying gallery installation on the mainland. The crew makes a brief stopover in Chattanooga by mid-July, then continues on for an exhibition at the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts in Florence, Ala., which opens Aug. 5. If all goes as planned, the voyage will reach its final destination of Paducah, Ky.—the end of the Tennessee River—by Aug. 22. There will be a showing there at the McCracken County Library and Maiden Alley Cinema through Sept. 7.

But first, he’ll have to navigate the series of dams, locks, lakes, wakes, and other hazards along the waterway. The first real challenge comes on the second day, when Dotty attempts to cross Fort Loudoun Lake and pass through the dam in the midst of July 4 weekend celebrations.

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Photo by Clay Duda

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Photo by Clay Duda

High Seas
At Duncan Boat Dock we hear plenty of warnings about the perils that await out on Fort Loudoun Lake, and unnerving accounts of locking through the dam, a necessary step to continue down river.

We make it out of Duncan’s later than expected, around 11 a.m. as the sun burns hot into the day. We stop at a “secret” fishing hole and I cast out for lunch without much luck. I reel in a small striper not worth the effort to clean and eat. Then I cannonball into the murky water alongside Big Cakes and Benzy. Hazel the ship dog doesn’t seem to like the water, but at Big Cakes’ command she makes a leap onto a small floating inner tube and bobs just above the water line.

The waterway opens up to Fort Loudoun Lake, an artificial bubble in the river created by Fort Loudoun Dam, just as the sky starts to gray. The atmosphere has been clear most of the day, but we don’t account for the seemingly daily afternoon thunderstorms that pound East Tennessee in summer. The sunny blue sky begins to dim, a pale blue mist covering the distant bluffs down river. It can only mean rain is on the way, and possibly thunder and lightening. As the gap between sun and cloud closes, boats zip past us in the opposite direction—a high-speed dash to escape the pending downpour.

I check Snapchat. We’re putting along at a steady 6 mph, but as the weather worsens and more turbulence is kicked up by fleeing boaters, our calm afternoon turns into a struggle on the high seas. Our small vessel rocks violently with each passing boat, now coming every few seconds to every few minutes. We’re on constant guard.

“Brace!” I scream, taking my turn at the helm. This thing handles like a box on skids. “Brace! BRACE!” Waves crash over the bow of the boat, washing across the short deck and into the cabin. “Towel!” Big Cakes yells, looking for something to soak up the water. He slings it on the floor across the doorway in an effort to hold back the encroaching swells.

We reach what seems to be the middle of the lake just as strong gusts begin, kicking up a series of larger, tougher, more frequent “wind waves” that begin pounding the shantyboat Dotty. Glasses and binoculars and books come crashing to the floor.

The sky opens up and rain begins to fall in sheets. Just then, the engine cuts out. The bamboo awning over the front deck crashes down. We’re out of gas and caught in the middle of the lake in a storm. Shantyboat Dotty rocks violently as boats continue to zip past. Her crew springs into action. Benzy makes for the stern (that’s the back!) to attempt a wet-weather fuel change over. Big Cakes and I venture onto the front deck, clinging to the outside of the shack as we try to untangle the bamboo poles and secure the canvas awning as the boat teeter-totters and lurches with each bulge in the lake-turned-ocean.

The rain hits harder and harder as we work this balancing act, trying to save the awning without losing a member of the crew. Finally we prevail. The cloth is fastened to the side of the house and bamboo poles slung inside. Benzy has managed to change over gas canisters, but now the boat still won’t start.

Full-on downpour. Bottles clink against the side of the boat, books shift on shelves, water pours through the doors and windows. Big Cakes fiddles with the controls as Benzy and I batten down the hatches, latching windows and doors. Turns out the shifter wasn’t quite in neutral, the finicky thing. Big Cakes figures the problem and the engine rumbles to life. “We’re making a B-line for shore!” he screams over the deafening pelts of rain against the tin roof.

We drop anchor in the shadow of a towering bluff, a silhouette through the thick blanket of rain. Here the winds are calmer. The weather whips outside our windows. There’s only one thing left to do: make hot toddies and ride out the storm. Team high-fives all around, dripping wet.

“It’s hard to get out of trouble but it’s easier to prevent it,” Big Cakes says, dubbing this backwater wisdom the quote-of-the-day. We should have followed that advice.

Lauren "Benzy" Benz and Wes "Big Cakes" Modes.

Lauren “Benzy” Benz and Wes “Big Cakes” Modes. Photo by Clay Duda.

Thirty minutes later and the clouds break. The dam is within sight. Unable to reach the staff there by radio, we call ahead to make arrangement for the lock. Good timing. A pontoon boat coming up stream is currently locking through. We’ll get there about the time the gates open.

Fort Loudoun Dam is an imposing feat of human engineering. From the upper lake you barely see the top of the dam’s spillways, but entering the lock you quickly realize its breathtaking scale and get a glimpse at the manpower it took to regulate the Tennessee River.

Inside the lock we’re surrounded by concrete walls on two sides, with two large metal gates at either end. As the water starts to drain, dropping us down 72 feet to meet the next portion of the Tennessee River, the concrete encasement looms larger and larger. It towers above us little by little, foot by foot, gallon by gallon until it dwarfs our meager ship.

The back gate, where we first entered, is now leaking a steady stream of water. The only thing between us and several billion gallons of lake water is one metal gate, one piece of human ingenuity installed more than a half-century ago, one that seems to have sprung a leak. We hold our breath until the horn sounds and the front gate opens, allowing us to continue on to the river below. The rough seas of Fort Loudoun Lake are a thing of the past, giving way to a placid, meandering river below. There is not a ship in sight, nor the ripple of a wake.

We pull up at Rick Arp’s boat dock just as dusk turns to dark. Arp is the nephew of Vaughn Goodson, an old fisherman Big Cakes met in Knoxville. He’s invited us to dock for the evening, and to take us fishing in the morning. Tired from the day-long ordeal, we gather in the dim cabin of shantyboat Dotty and eat barbecue leftovers Rick Arp and his wife, April, brought us down from the house—smoked chicken and bologna and steamed vegetables. Even on dry land my body feels like we’re still fighting waves on the lake.

Just as I get my sea legs, my hitch down the Tennessee draws to a close. For the crew of shantyboat Dotty, the adventure is just getting started. Follow their journey at peoplesriverhistory.us.

Photo Gallery: Life Aboard the Shantyboat Dotty

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Photo by Clay Duda.

[Edit: Original article misstated Modes’ nickname as “Pancakes,” corrected here to “Big Cakes.”]

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