Floating downstream, artist Wes Modes writes American history

Artists, collaborators and shipmates Monica Haller and Sebastian Müllauer on “Secret History” shantyboat.
Artists, collaborators and shipmates Monica Haller and Sebastian Müllauer on “Secret History” shantyboat.

Wes Modes has spent the better part of 12 years floating along America’s major rivers in a homemade boat.

The Sacramento History Museum will open an exhibit of photos, artifacts and narratives from Modes’ ongoing oral history project, “A Secret History of American River People,” on Saturday. The exhibit includes interviews Modes conducted from the deck of his homemade houseboat at stops along the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. Modes plans to float down the Sacramento River in July and gather stories to add to “A Secret History.” When Modes is not on the river, he lectures at University of California, Santa Cruz, California State University, Monterey Bay, and California State University, San Jose.

The Bee spoke with Modes, 50, from Santa Cruz County, about his motivation, process and plans for his historical project.

Q: How did you begin “A Secret History of American River People”?

A: Well, I’d done a lot of DIY boating – what we used to call “punk rafting” – where we build rafts out of abandoned construction materials and float down major rivers ... I started building a re-creation of a 1940s shantyboat and conceived this idea that I would float down rivers, listen to people’s stories and talk to them. I wanted to be more than a tourist ... I wanted to give something back in the form of sharing their stories, making it part of an archive and recording this for future generations.

Q: How do you choose which river to travel along?

A: The Mississippi looms very large in literature and history, in terms of the American experience, so starting on the Mississippi was kind of a no-brainer. We (shipmates Jeremiah Daniels, Monica Haller, and Sebastian Müllauer) spent two years (2014-2015) on the Mississippi and may go back at some point.

Q: Describe your typical workday.

A: Usually when we’re in a town or river community, we’re doing a lot of talking to people. People visit the boat, they’ve heard about it, they’ve read about it, they want to come down – we talk to them. Every person we meet, we always ask, “Who should we interviewing in this community?” ... We try to make clear that we’re interested in people who particularly have stories that usually aren’t part of the dominant historical narrative: people of color; people who are working class; native people. These are the folks who weren’t always the victors in historical conflicts, so their stories don’t necessarily get written  and those can be an hour to two hours, because these are oral history interviews.

Q: Any particular story stick out?

A: There was a woman that we met in Knoxville, Tenn., (named) Betty Goins, and she described herself as this “old hillbilly.” She grew up on a shantyboat, like mine but bigger, 80 years ago. Her dad would go into town to work during the week, and she heard prowlers on deck one night. And she says, “Who’s there?”

They yelled at her, “You just get yourself back to bed,” and she’s like, “You better go or I’m gonna go get the sawed off (shotgun).”

They said, “Never you mind.”

She came out, she shot them and they ran back to shore, full of buckshot, and they yelled at her “You done shot us!”

(Laughs) She said, “You come back again, I’ll shoot you again!”

Q: Did she say how old she was at the time?

A: She was about 8 or 9.

Q: What are the hardest days of the project?

A: Stormy days always come to mind. You know, you’re floating along and trying to enjoy the day and then suddenly, you notice all the powerboats are streaking off in one direction to go home (laughs), and then the wind kicks up and then the waves start  and it’s so stormy and blustery that we’re even having a hard time moving.

Usually some of the worst days are just traveling to and from the river, because while the boat has gone more than 1,000 miles on the river, it has traveled about 15,000 miles on the roads. So when you’re traveling along and your trailer throws a wheel, and then the other wheel disintegrates because the entire weight of the boat’s on it – that’s a bad day.

Q: What’s the future of the project?

A: The outcome of the project will be a series of the videos, and of course, there’s the (Sacramento History Museum’s) installation. We have an online blog that people can check out, I’m working on a series of books, and probably most importantly, it will be an archive of the interviews that researchers and scholars can check out to find out (for example), “What was the Sacramento River like in 2017?”

Karen Marks: 916-321-1136; karenmarks_

“A Secret History of American River People”

When: July 1-July 30

Where: Sacramento History Museum, 101 I St.

Cost: $8 for adults, $5 for youth 6-17, free for children 0-5 and members

Info: 916-808-7059, sachistorymuseum.org

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