Though once abundant along the shores of the Ohio River, shantyboats are no longer a common sight. These small, crude houseboats were often built and lived in by itinerant workers, miners, dockworkers, and displaced agricultural workers during the late 19th century and into the 1940s, but largely disappeared from river life after the 1970s. So when artists Wes Modes and Adrian ‘Age’ Nankivell (and their ship hound, Hazel) pulled up to the Marietta Harbor last week in a rustic shantyboat named Dotty, many local residents witnessed this piece of American history for the first time.
Dotty is more than just a recreated mid-century houseboat (which Wes describes as ‘more house-y than boat-y’ due to her height). Named for Wes’ grandmother, Dotty is a vessel for collecting and archiving personal stories of people who have a relationship with the river. This ongoing multimedia study in art, culture and social ecology goes by the name A Secret History of the American River People and is directed by Wes, with assistance from fellow artists and shipmates, like Age.
A school teacher nine months out of the year in his hometown of Santa Cruz, CA, Wes has spent the last six summers floating down American rivers, interviewing folks along the way in an attempt to preserve the currently endangered history of people who have long lived on and adjacent to the river.
“The history of shantyboats is the history of poor people, and that history isn’t written on the landscape,” says Wes. “Even in Marietta, which is very aware of its own history and wants to capture something other than just conventional history, the history written on the landscape is largely that of nation-states, conflicts between them, and great, white, dead men. There’s not much about your grandpa, your family, or people who have struggled.”
And if the hidden history of our poorer people is hard to find, he says, then the history of native people and people of color is even harder to find.
“I’m always interested in digging deeper to find this hidden history of working class people, or poor people, or people of color because it isn’t written on the landscape. That’s why it’s important. It’s important because it’s untold, and if it’s untold, then we can’t draw important lessons from it,” he says. “We can’t talk about current alternatives to how we live our lives if we don’t know that there ever were alternatives in the past.”
Through A Secret History of American River People, Wes examines the emerging crises facing current river communities dealing with issues such as gentrification, economic displacement, environmental degradation, and the effects of global climate change. He asks questions such as, “How do rivers connect us?” “Are rivers part of the public commons?” and “Whose stories get told?”
The journey didn’t initially begin with these questions, though. “I might have gone ass-in backward,” Wes admits. “I really like boats, and I really like homemade boats.” After building and floating homemade rafts for a few years, he wanted to build something a little more permanent. “I started thinking about what I was going to do with the boat. I was really interested in floating down rivers, which I had done on the homemade rafts, but I didn’t want to just be a tourist. I started thinking about what gift I could give back and what I could offer the people with whom we interact.”
And thus, A Secret History of American River People was born. “I had been on rivers where there was no river culture, so I was curious – does river culture still exist?” His thesis was an open-ended one. To his surprise, yes. Quite a bit, actually.
At the same time, he found that rivers often tend to be contested spaces. “There’s tension between money and tradition, money and preservation, between how people want to use the river. It manifests in different ways, including gentrification and urban redevelopment,” he says. Wes and his shipmates only see a snapshot in time for each place they visit, but in those snapshots, they’ve recognized a few patterns.
“We’ve seen towns where before the 1970s when the rivers were literally open sewers and polluted with chemical and organic waste, there wasn’t a desire to have a place down at the river. So prior to that, people who didn’t have much money, poor immigrants, people of color, people who would otherwise be homeless, had squats or shantys or shantyboats down on the river.” After the rivers were cleaned up though, people wanted to be down on the river. People with money began moving in and displacing those populations. “And then with urban renewal, many of those poorer neighborhoods and industrial neighborhoods were replaced with freeways. So there are a lot of towns that we’ve visited where the whole frontage to the river was a freeway, cutting the town off from the river,” says Wes.
Wes believes the most important function the river provides is more of a spiritual connection; It provides more than its economic benefits or its tourism potential.
“It’s more of an identifier for the people in the town to site themselves in the world. Marietta is at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers, and there’s no other town that can say that. I think that there’s nobody here who doesn’t know that, who isn’t keenly aware of that, who hasn’t been to a play in the park on the river, who hasn’t seen the sternwheel boats, or who hasn’t been affected by flooding. It serves a purpose that’s hard to commodify.”
And maybe it’s better that way, he says. “You can commodify tourism dollars or industry. But it’s hard to put a number on how people feel about a place because they have a river they rely on as their sense of place.”
Wes and Age stopped in Marietta for four days, arriving on July 3rd and departing on the 6th, having set out from Pittsburgh ten days prior. Thanks in part to quick coordination with local organizations, they hosted an exhibit during Marietta Main Street’s First Friday event on July 5th. Wes says hundreds of visitors stopped by to see the shantyboat and share their stories.
Bobby Rosenstock, who helped sponsor Friday’s exhibit, says he appreciates what Wes and Age are doing through A Secret History of American River People. “In the spirit of a grass-roots Anthony Bourdain show, Wes and Adrian are able to have real conversations with folks from small town America. They’re not just showing up and putting a microphone in their face,” he says. “They are putting in the work of floating down the river. It makes people curious and garners a sense of respect from folks that live along the river, which results in them opening up and sharing their stories.”
Like Wes, Bobby believes collecting these stories are important because they come from people who are often overlooked. “These stories tell the history of our country and show some of the struggles we are currently facing. The way Wes and Age are collecting these stories through an art project and an adventure, it makes it more than just another essay – it has an aesthetic value to it and shares the explorers’ stories as well, offering a rare glimpse of what is happening in small towns along the Ohio River.”
Age, a native New Zealander who first met Wes at Burning Man twenty years ago, is serving as a shipmate for the second time, first joining Wes for his voyage along the Tennessee River a few years ago. “You get to see a side of America that no normal tourist or visitor would see, you get some pretty amazing insight and get to meet some very interesting people.”
Wes was excited for this trip down the Ohio River, which wraps up in Louisville, KY in August where he has an exhibition running. After six summers on the river, he’ll be taking a sabbatical next year to write a book or two and work on his documentary. After that? “Next will be a circumnavigation of the UK canals and at some point, an exploration of the Atchafalaya River, which run parallel to the Mississippi in Louisiana through Cajun country, to New Orleans.”
What began as a budding interest in boats and a way to escape an uninspiring job on the weekends has blossomed into a meaningful project that still excites Wes and his shipmates. Each river introduces them to new regions, communities, and people whose stories add to the rich narrative of river people.
“At first, I didn’t know if anyone cares about any rivers anywhere. But people really do care about their rivers. I’ve come to realize that in all of our towns, everywhere there are river people.”
To follow along with Wes and Age on the rest of their journey, follow their Facebook and Instagram account, and visit their website where they regularly add updates, photos, videos and more. You can also make a contribution to support A Secret History of American River People through their website.