Florence Courier-Journal: The River’s Life and People

Florence Courier-Journal

The shanty boat takes Wes Modes to the stories of American rivers. Below, ship’s hound, Hazel, checks out the Saturn V while visiting Huntsville. (peoplesriverhistory.us)

FLORENCE – A rustic recreated 1940s shanty boat, a daring river voyage, and a meticulous archive of river stories are all part of a multi-year art and history project, A Secret History of American River People. Santa Cruz, California artist Wes Modes is currently floating his homemade houseboat down the historic Tennessee River.

Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts welcomes Modes and his Shanty Boat to Florence  Friday-Monday, August 5-8.  The artist and oral history collector and his crew will exhibit compiled river histories at the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts.  A welcome reception will be held August 5 at 5:30-7:30pm with music from the Shoals Dulcimer and Folk Music Association and river art from private collections. Dinner will be available from Steak N Stuff.

In recent years Modes has been located on the Upper Mississippi River.  He has floated for months at a time collecting the stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of his shantyboat.  This year Modes, his crew and his dog Hazel launched in Knoxville for a journey through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

A Secret History of American River People is a project to build a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of a recreated 1940s-era shanty boat over a series of epic river voyages,” Modes said in a press release.  “The project explores the issues facing current river communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river, and basic river ecology.”

Modes seeks out people whose stories are not typically part of the historical record. “I try to find our elders who grew up here and remember a different time and a different river. I talk to poor and working folk and people who grew up poor along the Tennessee River. I find the stories of African-American folk and the stories of native people.”

Along with gathering stories of local river people, Modes is exhibiting the project in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Huntsville, Florence, and Paducah. At exhibitions visitors step onto the recreated shanty boat, pick up the banjo or a book from the library, sit awhile and overhear the stories of shantyboaters, scientists, historians, and locals who live and work on the river.

The project will result in a series of books, short and feature documentaries, and an archive of river stories available to future generations of scholars.

The journey and the project are detailed in the project website at http://peoplesriverhistory.us/

The shanty boat will be docked at Florence Harbor and Marina in McFarland Park and visitors are encouraged to stop by. This program is sponsored by Listerhill Credit Union. The exhibit will be open Friday from 5:30-7:30pm; Saturday from 10am-4pm; Sunday from 1-4pm, and Monday from 10am-4pm. Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts is located at 217 E. Tuscaloosa St.  Call 256-760-6379 for more information.

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