A Secret History of American River People is an art and history project that builds a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of a recreated mid-century shantyboat over a series of epic river voyages. The project examines the ways that river communities respond to threats to river culture such as economic displacement, gentrification, environmental damage caused by generations of river modification, and the effects of global climate change.
This year, the project is exploring the rich and important American history of the Ohio River Valley touching on the the dramatic geography, the history of westward expansion and early settlements in the territory, American Indian relations and removal, self-emancipated people, abolitionists, and the Underground Railroad, river modification by the Army Corp of Engineers, the important role the Ohio River played in the Industrial Revolution, and efforts to clean up the industrial pollution of the river.
We are raising $5000 to directly support our fieldwork on the historic Ohio River. Your support makes this happen.
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. A road trip across North America, fieldwork on the historic Ohio River, pop-up exhibitions in Ohio River towns, and a major show in Louisville, Kentucky are all part of our ambitious plan for this year.
Responses and Adaptation to Threats of Homogenization, Diaspora, and Erasure
The river. The waterways that flow through most towns, often culverted, hidden behind high levies, shoved underground or behind the grubbiest neighborhoods. These are the former arteries of America, the way goods, services, and people got around, long before coast-to-coast railroads and highways. Rivers, bays, and estuaries were formerly so important they got special attention in the constitution of many U.S. states and commonwealths. The Ohio River played a critical role in American westward expansion and later the Industrial Revolution.
For a century, shantytowns and shantyboat communities thrived in the rural and urban bottomland, adjacent to the polluted waterways where it flooded every spring, places for itinerant workers, miners, fishermen, shipbuilders, and displaced farmers in towns all over the continent. On the Ohio River, working-class folks and new immigrants responsible for creating much of the wealth of the nation, the people who brought the fish, built the ships, picked the crops -- and people cast-off from society, impoverished people, veterans suffering from PTSD, convicted felons, bootleggers, sex workers, and people struggling with mental illness or addiction -- often found homes at the fringes of society along the river running through more than 200 Ohio River towns.
Now these fringe communities have been displaced from the riverside and their identities as river people has shifted. Though part of the American landscape for more than a century, very little is written about the history of shantyboats and boathouse communities outside of occasional autobiographical memoirs and pulp novels.
As people struggle through modern capitalism to search for meaningful and sustainable ways of existing -- simplifying their lives, downsizing their possessions, and exploring tiny homes -- the history of river people becomes critical to conceptualizing alternatives to modern life.
Listening to River People in Ohio River Communities
We make our way downriver in a rustic houseboat, built by the artist over two years, loosely based on designs from shantyboats in the 1940s, from largely recycled and reclaimed materials. People tell us that traveling on the river in an authentic shantyboat and taking the time to listen to people's stories makes this project unique. This participatory project inspires deep wonder and connects meaningfully with people's personal histories.
While there is work being done to understand river ecologies, there is relatively little work being done to record, preserve, and understand the social ecology of river communities. This project attempts to preserve the underrepresented history of people who have long lived on and adjacent to the river with a multi-layered, multimedia project that includes a touring participatory exhibition, an online project archive of videos, photographs, and stories, a scholarly research archive, short and feature documentaries, and a series of books.
Gathering Ohio River Stories
We are in our sixth year of the project. The shantyboat has traveled over 1250 river miles and 26,000 miles by land. We've conducted over 125 oral history interviews spanning hundreds of hours of video, exhibited nationwide, and talked to thousands of people about the river.
In summer 2019, I will engage in fieldwork on over 600 miles of the Ohio River. We will be stopping at small Ohio River towns every few miles and talking to people we meet and conducting interviews.
The Ohio River is unique in our travels throughout the U.S. as a river steeped in history, river culture, and dense with small river communities. Ohio River towns are in touch with the history of the river as the gateway to the West and its role in commerce, industrial development, and abolitionist history. Close to my interests, Ohio River towns are brimming with history about shantyboats and people living on the river, thanks in part to authors such as Harlan Hubbard who wrote several well-known non-fiction books about living aboard a shantyboat on the Ohio. There is also a darker and less well-known history of American Indian removal from the Ohio River Valley.
Presenting River Stories
Along with our fieldwork, we are presenting these stories by hosting short pop-up presentations and longer formal exhibitions. As much as possible, I let river people tell their stories in their own words. However, formal talks in conjunction with these exhibitions allow me to offer interpretive observations about the larger history, cultural heritage, economic forces, and environmental concerns we’ve encountered through our discussions and travels.
Fans of the project will follow our journey on our extensive blog, website, and social media through stories, photos, and video introducing the people we meet, the places we explore, and the adventure of the expedition.
Asking for Your Support
We are trying to raise $5000 to bring the shantyboat to the Ohio River and work our way downriver collecting stories for the archive. Your support makes this project work.
Crowdsourcing makes up more than a quarter of the Secret History budget, so your support is critical. The rest of the project budget comes from expected grants and from the artist's contribution to the project.
As the results of our fall grant writing trickle in, we learn that we didn't get some of the important grants we were hopeful about. As we reduce our budget in response to this, it increases the importance of our Kickstarter campaign.
Get Updates From the Expedition - Pledge $1 or more - While we are on the river, we post scores of photos and mini-stories and at least a half-dozen blog posts. You will get updates in your email of any blogs we post and instructions on following us via Insta, Facebook, and Twitter.
Outfit the Shantyboat Dotty - Pledge $5 or more - Take your modest contribution plus one of the many things we need for the trip from our wishlist at peoplesriverhistory.us/wishlist and have it sent straight to us! We will name it after you, send you a personal thank you, and email you a photo of it installed in the shantyboat.
Your Art in the Shantyboat Gallery - Pledge $10 or more - In case you didn't know, the Shantyboat Dotty has an art gallery in the head on the back porch. In this diminutive gallery, we have art from all over the world. If you send us a postcard-sized artwork before we leave for the Ohio, we will hang it in the gallery where it will be seen by hundreds of people who visit the project.
Video Selfie From the River - Pledge $25 or more - We will send you a personalized video selfie from the deck of the shantyboat on the Ohio River. Maybe we will be drinking, or making breakfast, or fighting wind and waves. For one delicious moment, you will be with us on the river. We will text it directly to your phone where you can then post it to Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #shantyboat for total bragging rights. $25 gets us 6 miles closer to our launch in Pittsburgh or 70 miles down the Ohio River.
A Hand-Scrawled Drunk Postcard - Pledge $35 or more - This continues to be our most popular reward. 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. $35 gets us nearly 9 miles closer to our launch in Pittsburgh or 100 miles down the Ohio River.
Classic Secret History Black Tee - Pledge $45 or more - People love this shirt and I see it turn up in photos and at events. A reprint of this gorgeous black t-shirt made by Jake Simowitz from his shanytboat woodcut print comes in a variety of sizes on quality fitted American Apparel-style Tees. See photo in rewards to the left. $45 gets us 10 miles closer to our Pittsburgh launch or 130 miles downriver.
Very Last-Chance Secret History Poster - Pledge $75 or more - Amazingly we still have a few of these beautiful silkscreened posters made by artist Jake Simowitz. A large print (24" x 16") of his woodcut for the project on beautiful sturdy paper. Really this is one of the most beautiful posters you ever seen. We are lucky to have them. $75 gets us 18 miles down the road to the Ohio River.
Permanent Thanks and a T-Shirt - Pledge $200 or more - You’re not doing it for the reward or for the glory, but we are tremendously grateful for your support and want to highlight your generosity. Plus we will send you a classic black Secret History T-Shirt. $200 pays for a fifth of our motor maintenance or nearly 50 miles toward our launch in Pittsburgh
Permanent Thanks and a Poster - Pledge $230 or more - You’re not doing it for the reward or for the glory, but we are tremendously grateful for your support and want to highlight your generosity. Plus we will send you a Secret History poster. $230 gets us 55 miles down the road or pays for nearly 1/4 of our motor maintenance.
All. The. Things. - Pledge $500 or more - Let's be honest, you just want to support the project. And you may not ever care about a reward. But we want to show our tremendous appreciation. We will send you all the things: A postcard, a video selfie from the river, a poster, a shirt, and a permanent thanks on our website. $500 pays for a third of the work on the shantyboat before our trip.
How the Money is Spent
This year, the project has an ambitious $34,593 budget with $5000 coming from crowdsourcing. Though as we just learned that we didn't get some important grants the budget will have to be cut. This makes our Kickstarter campaign even more important.
We have never fundraised more than a fraction of that which barely pays for maintenance on the boat, exhibition costs, and travel to our fieldwork locations. That means I and my shipmates generally work for free because we care about the history of the river communities we are gathering and sharing.
More Information and Updates
If you support the project, you will get regular project updates (Each year we post 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, instagram, rss, and twitter on our contact page.
Year after year, this project continues to excite and engage me, allowing me to talk with thousands of people about the importance of river culture. I thank you for supporting the project.
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, reward fulfillment was mercifully prompt, and we thank you for your patience.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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