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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

In Other Words: We Are the Stories We Tell

Shanty docked at New Richmond
There it was resting against the shore of the Ohio River at New Richmond, Ohio - a genuine mid-20th century shanty boat design built from reclaimed materials.

It was built by Wes Modes and friends and they have been floating rivers across the country off and on now for six years. They tow it to a drop off point, put it, and float off to an adventure. Later the boat is loaded on a trailer and prepared for the next journey.  But what started as a personal adventure has morphed into something bigger and more significant.  It is history - recorded and displayed.


I had the chance to chat with the crew of the shanty boat floating the Ohio on its way to its end in Louisville. When I first saw the roughly 8’ x 20’ shanty I couldn’t help but think how much it resembled the shanty that Fort Thomas’ Harlan Hubbard made famous in his New York Times bestseller Shanty Boat.  So I arranged a tour of Hubbard’s Fort Thomas home and studio. After the tour, we sat in the studio and chatted about why Modes is doing this project and what he intends to do with the interviews he collects along the way.

from A Secret History of American River People website
Modes is a lecturer at CA Santa Cruz but enjoys rafting rivers and adventuring.  Modes writes on his website that he holds “an MFA from the Digital Art and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz. I have exhibited my art and performed regionally since 1996. I am also a UCSC art lecturer and curator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. In other lives, I am a high-tech runaway, writer, community organizer, geek, and mischief-maker.”  Click on this link to view his website, A Secret History of American River People (https://peoplesriverhistory.us/who/).

The crew chronicles their interviews and adventures and posts them online. But the purpose of A Secret History of American River People is to build a collection of personal stories of those who live and work on the river. The stories are often contradictory, inspiring, and emotional tales of life along the river.  Many times these are the stories of the forgotten, the often powerless, overlooked, and sometimes neglected people and sometimes they are the stories of the fortunate.

Colleen Epperson snapped this as they floated by Ludlow
The crew on this particular trip was Wes Modes, Lauren Benz, Adrian Nankiveil, and Hazel the dog. They are artists collecting stories, displaying history, and having some fun. They are knowledgable, respectful, opinionated, direct, thoughtful, and honest. And you can’t help but be drawn in.

But back to the why. Benz muses philosophically, “The why grows.” She said one of the most common statements they hear is “You're living my dream."  She replies with, “It could be your dream too, you know.” 

Modes adds “The why is evolving. People are extremely open during interviews… The more we meet our goal of telling stories of people whose stories don’t normally get told the better the stories are that we get.” 


It is true that we are the stories that we tell so if you want to know someone then listen to their stories. We reveal who we are and what we value. That goes for individuals and groups. So listen closely. Ask questions. We will learn that the journey is the destination and like Lauren Benz observed, “The why grows.” 

Modes and the crew plan to visit Hubbard’s Payne Hollow on their way to Louisville. And you can visit the Harlan Hubbard Studio and Nature Preserve on the third Saturday of the month for their Studio Hours.  https://www.facebook.com/FortThomasForestConservancy/

Harlan Hubbard Studio and Nature Preserve

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