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An art and history project to uncover the lost stories on the Tennessee River.
An art and history project to uncover the lost stories on the Tennessee River.
75 backers pledged $5,695 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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$5,695

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A rustic recreated 1940s shantyboat, a series of daring river voyage, and a meticulous archive of river stories are all part of a multi-year art and history project.

This summer the project launches on a different river in a different part of the continent, the Tennessee River, that runs through the American South, through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi ending in Kentucky on the banks of the Ohio River.

Thanks to your support, our previous Kickstarter journeys over the last two years were successfully funded. Despite heroic setbacks - broken trailers, vehicles, and balky motors -- the projects (here and here) were successfully completed! 

These adventures took us on the Upper Mississippi River, running 680 miles from Minneapolis, Minnesota to St. Louis, Missouri. Over four months living on the river, the project traveled much of this. I gathered over 50 oral history interviews with river people for the archive.

Year after year, this project continues to excite me. These archives telling otherwise untold personal narratives are a significant contribution to American history with wide-reaching significance to people living and searching for solutions to shared challenges in river communities elsewhere on the continent.

The Project

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 shantyboat over a series of epic river voyages. 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.

Using material from fieldwork on a growing list of American rivers, Secret History is an art piece, firmly rooted in a People’s History tradition, that reexamine the issues currently and historically faced by river communities. Particular attention is given to the invisible stories of women, native people, working people, and people of color, to create a multi-perspective and multi-path take on historical narrative, exploring the importance of a public commons and challenging dominant cultural assumptions about the role in society of people living at the fringe.

We are currently working on a research archive and a book, with other projects planned, including collaborations with other artists, short and feature documentaries, and a series of books. Plus the project exhibits regularly at galleries and museums across the country.

The Shantyboat

In 2012, I began building the Secret History shantyboat. Inspired by historical accounts of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, I lovingly recreated a traditional wooden-hulled barge-bottom houseboat with the help of friends over two years out of largely rustic reclaimed materials.

The people that we meet consistently tell us that the shantyboat draws them to the project. It attracts attention when we are towing it across country and when we are on the river. "Did you make this?" people always ask, "I've always dreamed of doing this." People recognize that we are connecting to both a bygone era and river life today.

Life on the shantyboat is cozy but comfortable. We have a full kitchen, a bed loft, a work table, a comfortable couch, and a library full of river adventures, reference books, art books, and trashy novels to pass the time. Pretty much everything we need.

In our free time, we sit on the decks of the shantyboat and play banjo and watch the sky and the river.

The People

Meeting people who work and live on the river, I continue to collect a digital archive of personal histories — the lost stories of river people, river communities, and the river itself, including the personal chronicle of our ongoing adventure.

I conducted oral-history interviews with artists, boathouse residents, scientists, researchers, historians, business owners, and adventurers. On the journey, I used the project website and social media to share stories, photographs, and video to connect river people with those far from the river.

Why Kickstarter?

We are trying to raise $5580 before May 31st to bring the shantyboat to the Tennessee River and work our way downriver collecting stories for the archive. Your support makes this project work.

There are lots of ways to support the project so check out the website. But if you can give your financial support, every little bit helps. Five bucks gets us 20 miles closer to the river. A hundred bucks pays for a a tenth of the cost of getting there.

Thanks again for making a Secret History possible.

The Rewards

Send us a Card For the Archive - $5 Pledge: Send us your art on a postcard (or a photo) and it will go into the Secret History archive and possibly hung up within the shantyboat on our journey.

Drunk Postcard - $25 Pledge: This was our most popular reward last year. We will write you a postcard while we are drunk and traveling on the river. All those hard days of boating and interviewing and long summer evenings of river living. We will drunkenly tell you all about the stuff we'd never tell you when we were sober.

Secret History Woodcut - $100 Pledge: Check out the beautiful woodcut print created by artists Jake Simowitz, yours with a $100 pledge. It's a large single-color hand silkscreened print (24" x 16") of his woodcut for the project on beautiful sturdy paper.

Secret History T-Shirt - $200 Pledge: Here is the Secret History T-shirt, also from Jake Simowitz' shantyboat woodcut, a gorgeous black tee and comes in a variety of sizes on quality fitted American Apparel-style tees. It's the reward for your $200 pledge. We'll ask your size and style preference in a survey after the campaign is funded. (This took forever last time because we wanted to find economical quality shirts and quality printing.)

Skype Date with Artists - $500 Pledge: While we are on the river, we can call you up through the wonders of the Internets if we are near a wifi connection. You'll get to ask us all about the compromises and drama of living in tight quarters, and hear stories that aren't fit for the general public. Our 45 minute date can be redeemed over the internet, or afterward, in person at a mutually agreeable place, if you live near the SF Bay Area. And we will send you the poster and a t-shirt.

How the Money is Spent

This year, the project has a $9K budget with $5580 coming from crowdsourcing. Most of that goes toward fieldwork and paying the artists.

Crowdsourcing makes up just over half of the Secret History budget, so as you can see, your support is critical. The rest of the project budget comes from grants and from the artist's contribution to the project.

More Information and Updates

If you support the project, you will get regular project updates (Last year we posted about 50 blog updates and hundreds of photos). If you want to sign up for regular project updates, especially when we are on the river, you can sign up via email, rss, and twitter on our contact page.

Check out the stories at peoplesriverhistory.us

 And the interactive map on the Secret History website.

Risks and challenges

I am a veteran DIY boater and know from a decade of experience that the challenges and setbacks that you encounter on the river are part of the journey.

The project is an oral history of people's river experiences. This includes my own meta-narrative of the Secret History exhibition. There are the stories that people have to tell, and, as well, there is the story of discovering that story. The people, the places, the blissful days, the heat and humidity and mosquitos, the driving wind and rain, the setbacks. These are all part of the human history that we are all part of making.

Last year, our reward fulfillment took forever (again) and we thank you for your patience. This time, we are not offering anything as a reward that we don't already have ready to go.

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Support this project

  1. Select this reward

    Pledge $5 or more About $5

    A POSTCARD IN THE ARCHIVE. Send us a postcard before we leave and we will put it in the Secret History archive, maybe even posted in the shantyboat. It can be handmade, your own artwork or photo, a vintage card, or whatever you want. Send to 548 Redwood Dr, Felton, CA 95018 before June 15th.

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    Pledge $25 or more About $25

    A HAND-SCRAWLED DRUNK POSTCARD ENROUTE. In the evenings while we are drinking to forget the latest fury the river has thrown at us, we'll carelessly scrawl you a postcard that we may regret later. Hear all about whatever is on our minds, unfiltered by inhibitions, propriety, and good sense, delivered by USPS!

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    Pledge $100 or more About $100

    SECRET HISTORY WOODCUT POSTER. This beautiful poster made by artist Jake Simowitz is a large print (24" x 16") of his woodcut for the project on beautiful sturdy paper. See the photo in the Rewards section to the left.

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    Pledge $200 or more About $200

    WEAR THE SECRET HISTORY PROJECT. Here is the Secret History T-shirt, also from Jake Simowitz' shantyboat woodcut, a gorgeous black tee and comes in a variety of sizes on quality fitted American Apparel-style tees. It's the reward for your $200 pledge. We'll ask your size and style preference in a survey after the campaign is funded. (This took forever last time because we wanted to find economical quality shirts and quality printing. We are printing a big batch right now.)

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  5. Select this reward

    Pledge $500 or more About $500

    SKYPE DATE WITH SECRET HISTORY ARTISTS. While we are on the river, we'll call you and share some of the stories of our journey. Our 45 minute date can be redeemed over the internet, or afterward, in person if you live near the SF Bay Area. PLUS we send you the poster and a t-shirt.

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Funding period

- (31 days)