How the Mississippi shantyboats helped build a culture




“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable” – “Dry Salvages”, T.S. Eliot

Long before Wes Modes began planning a journey down the Mississippi, he started building a traditional barge-bottom houseboat in a California backyard out of rustic reclaimed materials (e.g. old fences and chicken coops). Once his shantyboat was complete he hatched a plan to transport it across the country from Santa Cruz to Minnesota to begin a “Huck-Finn style” journey down the iconic American river.

Following in the footsteps of Harlan and Anna Hubbard, whose eight-year journey down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers was chronicled in Harlan’s book “Shantytown”, Modes launched his own float 70 years later. His “Secret History of American River People” is part personal adventure and part research project, collecting stories of “river people” along the banks.

Complete with lofted bed, compost toilet and full-kitchen (propane-powered camp stove and plumbed sink), his 10-by-8-foot houseboat cabin serves as both floating home and mobile office for his summertime sojourns.

After two summers on the Mississippi recording stories for his “Secret History of American River People”, Modes (along with first mate Lauren Benz) set out to tackle the 652-mile Tennessee River from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky. We caught up with him in Knoxville, which he pointed out is also the setting for Cormac McCarthy’s semi-autobiographical shantyboat novel “Suttree”.

Nearly everywhere he goes, Modes has discovered that the times of shantyboat living have largely disappeared. “I just finished an interview with somebody,” he explained from Volunteer Landing in Knoxville. “He was saying when he was a kid growing up in the sixties there were people living along the banks of some of the creeks and the river, but by the mid-to-late seventies those people were all gone. And by the eighties they had renewed the riverfront and by the nineties… all those people who used to live along the rivers in little homemade shacks and shanty boats were instead displaced.”

Modes uses crowdfunding to help pay for his trips where he hopes to tell the stories of people who don’t usually make the history books. “I think that’s kind of like this idea of postmodern history in which you’re examining the little tales of people, the tales of you and I, the relationships in our lives, and the adventures we’d had and the hardships we’ve endured. Those are a form of history that is just as valid and just as legitimate as history with a capital H: history that makes the dominant narrative of the people who generally are the victors and the people who win and the people who write the history books.“

Secret History of American River People:
Wes’ crowdfunding for 2017:

Original story:

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47 Comments

  1. Jeff Bingaman
    September 2, 2017
    Reply

    I remember my first trip through Louisiana back in about 81 and there were houseboats and river houses everywhere. Then went back through in around 88 and not as many.
    Then moved there in 2005 and very few left. The people I talked to said they weren't running electricity to the water anymore. Basically they want the few possibly 1000 or so people to start paying property tax. They banned them. And we're only allowed but not necessarily welcomed by the local govt. in only a few places.
    When I was a kid I thought going to work in a boat would have been fun. Never did it but now America is destroying another dream of a freedom.

  2. Albert Gallagher
    September 3, 2017
    Reply

    It's a wonderful place to relax and enjoy life on the water.

  3. Joseph Campese
    September 4, 2017
    Reply

    Dude you need to trim up. You've got like a 7 degree starboard list.

  4. Mark D
    September 5, 2017
    Reply

    Did you use GlenL plans? I built their Thunderbolt about 20 years ago.

  5. Jacob MacLeod
    September 6, 2017
    Reply

    This was a gem: "Yeah, everything we did ourselves. The thing is, we don't know anything about anything so like when we want to do a thing we just do a thing…and if it didn't work, we'd redo a thing." Thank you again, Kirsten!

  6. Jim Davis
    September 6, 2017
    Reply

    Awesome.

  7. Keith Avery
    September 7, 2017
    Reply

    Way too cool…thank you for sharing your story.  Be safe.

  8. Wm Cottrell
    September 7, 2017
    Reply

    It was great to see you for a brief moment on this video. As always an amazing feature and your writing is so eloquent. I was wondering if you have ever given thought about adding some ariel views and editing them in from a drone. I think it may ad so much more to any video to see a high up perspective. Not promoting her videos, but you may check out Drone Girl's videos. They really offer some spectacular views. Also. have you ever thought about submitting some of your videos to film festivals. I was a screener for a couple of film festivals for a few years. This would have made a great addition to one which shows the history of lives on the rivers in America in past years.Keep up the great work!!

  9. Anne Moore
    September 8, 2017
    Reply

    thank you for showing this… I enjoy lots…

  10. Wandering Adventurer
    September 11, 2017
    Reply

    AWSOME!!! I LOVE IT!!! SUCH A GREAT IDEA!!!

  11. captain Sam
    September 13, 2017
    Reply

    that's a beautiful houseboat 🙂

  12. warishell3000
    September 14, 2017
    Reply

    Just found this great channel a few weeks ago and am impressed as hell with the quality. It is just the right amount of depth about the owners/builders, details of the build, and the editing and camera work are superb. Better than anything on commercial tv by far. Keep up the great work!

  13. Future Fungus
    September 14, 2017
    Reply

    I missed it, how exactly are you "giving back to the communitys" ?

  14. บ้ณฑิต งามสาย
    September 15, 2017
    Reply

    ดีครับ

  15. Stephen Gerrard
    September 18, 2017
    Reply

    Hi Kirsten,
    I enjoyed watching the video and learning about the world of the Shantyboat people. I live near Liverpool in England. Before I retired five years ago I dreamt of how I would like to spend my retirement. I had just read the well known book by Harlan Hubbard about building a shantyboat and his travels This influenced me to decide I would like to spend some time in retirement as a Shantyboat man. I ended up writing a song about my fantasy and performing it on a Shantyboat (built by a Liverpool artist on a canal inear Liverpool) Not quite the Ohio !!! But never mind I would like to share the video with you. You can find it on google as follows http://www.stephengerrard.com. Best wishes on your future travels and research.
    Steve

  16. Stephen Gerrard
    September 18, 2017
    Reply

    Sorry Kirsten….I should have mentioned that you can also find the songvideo on YOU TUBE….StehenGerrard Shantyboat…..would love to hear your thoughts.

  17. KlunkerRider
    September 20, 2017
    Reply

    Mrs. Pants: But what about the privies?
    Blackadder: Um, well, what we are talking about in privy terms is the latest in front wall fresh air orifices combined with a wide capacity gutter installation below.
    Mrs. Pants: You mean you crap out the window?
    Blackadder: Yes.

    :-/

  18. Event Hʘriךּon
    September 26, 2017
    Reply

    he reminds me so much of the guy on 'people of earth'!

  19. Friedel Schroder
    September 28, 2017
    Reply

    Love the idea and nice to see you find more inspirational individuals – your thread kicked me off 4 years ago with rebuilding a 'wreck of the week' boat, so totally cool to find you do this shanty boat

  20. assid a
    September 29, 2017
    Reply

    hay that black man is me i was there how have you been man

  21. Paul Haney
    October 1, 2017
    Reply

    I like the barge type bottom. I built my "redneck houseboat" on a 10X28 big pontoon boat. It's really sturdy aluminum but the pontoons are old (1970's) and closed cell foam filled and they leak so I think I'm carrying a lot of extra weight. Even with sumps you can never get all that water dried out of there. I wish I could find a true steel barge type around this size. I"ve got a 90 horse and top speed is 8mph. I see yours is wood but I love it. Looks great!

  22. Tom Senft
    October 2, 2017
    Reply

    I bought mine at Shantyboats heaper. The "C" fell off.

  23. Percy Barbarossa
    October 8, 2017
    Reply

    Absolutely wonderfull video, thank you both for sharing your experiences, great video

  24. Der Pate
    October 16, 2017
    Reply

    You are dragging the john boat outboard needlessly, it should be lifted when towing to get rid of the drag and wear on your other outboard.

  25. 雁南飞
    October 19, 2017
    Reply

    厉害

  26. jutubaeh
    October 21, 2017
    Reply

    river people = prötö geömäntists ?

  27. Daniel Daniel
    October 29, 2017
    Reply

    I would do this with my life but my family would disown me

  28. Ray Kelly
    November 3, 2017
    Reply

    Very cool

  29. Hailey Vittetoe
    November 5, 2017
    Reply

    I would love to do this! I live 5 min away from downtown Knox, thats so cool to see something like that!

  30. Ben Taitano
    November 7, 2017
    Reply

    If it has a "loft", it's more "housey" than "boaty".

  31. LordKira
    November 10, 2017
    Reply

    WE DON'T KNOW SHIT
    WE LIKE BOATS
    WE LIKE HOUSES
    WE MADE A SHITTY BOAT HOUSE

    niceeeeee

  32. Sailerman
    November 13, 2017
    Reply

    "Only in the states" you say They would never allow this in Canada too many rules They would class these as a navigational hazard and order it scrapped

  33. Chuck Flynn
    November 14, 2017
    Reply

    How cool

  34. Bonobo3D
    November 14, 2017
    Reply

    Beautiful and charming shanty boat. Much respect for this man's work to collect histories as well.

  35. Michael A
    November 19, 2017
    Reply

    What a wonderful man..

  36. Grant Marshall
    November 19, 2017
    Reply

    That boat is both beautiful and perfect. This man is living the dream for sure.

  37. Von Allan
    November 24, 2017
    Reply

    cool boat!

  38. bill bye
    November 25, 2017
    Reply

    a boat or a houseboat is a hole in the water to pour money into!

  39. Johannes Laser
    November 25, 2017
    Reply

    how do you find all these people?

  40. Sebastian Dangerfield
    November 28, 2017
    Reply

    What do these homes on the water do for sewage and running water?

  41. aneil Armoogan
    November 29, 2017
    Reply

    Cool like it a lot

  42. Bear Blackhawk
    November 29, 2017
    Reply

    Holy shit dude. Try getting a good job! Or better yet a career.

  43. Jonathan Tomich
    December 1, 2017
    Reply

    Find out where that guy got his pumping sink
    —–
    Comment brought to you through WiFi by a homeless guy

  44. Andrew Jighunter
    December 1, 2017
    Reply

    The homosexual community never ceases to amaze me on their versatility and infiltrating into all Stratas of life

  45. ChayomanHutzepua
    December 2, 2017
    Reply

    These are "The Beautiful ones" from the rat utopia experiment. They are happy and away from chaos

  46. Jeff Stanley
    December 2, 2017
    Reply

    I have a friend that lives on the river in a boat..Sorry folks, not for me..

  47. Marianne Lottes
    December 3, 2017
    Reply

    this looks wonderful . it reminds me of reading the Kontiki Expedition .

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