Here to return to
OF all the dwellers in the valley of the great river, those who live in the houseboats have by far the most picturesque environment. You find them everywhere from St. Paul to New Orleans, and not only on the main river, but on all the larger tributaries. There are many thousands of these water-gypsies in all, though the number fluctuates, and in winter the northern regions are pretty much deserted by them. Sometimes you may see a score or more boats in the neighborhood of a single large town, and again, the flotilla may be reduced to a half dozen.
The boats vary surprisingly in size and architecture. Every man builds according to his means, his chance whims, and the material he may have at hand. Some boats are hardly bigger than an ordinary skiff and are roofed with canvas stretched over hoops. The dwellers crawl inside as into a hole in the ground. Other boats are large, convenient, and attractive, and make homes by no means to be despised. They have several rooms, and very likely “are as nice inside as the parlor in anybody’s house.” One such craft was pointed out to me which had cost fifteen hundred dollars. But the vast majority cost less than one hundred dollars, and many not half or quarter that sum. A large portion of the necessary materials can be picked up along the river without expense; for boards, plank, and timbers are always being carelessly lost into the water by the men who handle them on the scows and about the sawmills. The river people themselves commonly call these floating homes “shanty-boats,” and that indicates their general character. They are mostly rudely built in the first place, get little care, and in a few years go to pieces.
One of the first that I investigated was at Baton Rouge, moored by the shore just aside from the wharves. The house part was a single room about 8 by 12 feet, and the family consisted of a man and wife and two daughters. They said they had been living on a larger boat, but the bottom “got bad,” and it sank. The wreck was close by, half submerged. The people were from the North, which they had abandoned because the woman’s lungs couldn’t stand the cold. The houseboat afforded a cheap means of shifting to a kindlier climate, and also served after they got South as an economical home. There were no taxes to pay, and no rent; you could catch your own firewood, and with hook and line supply a good share of your own meat, and these were no mean advantages to a family in straitened circumstances.
A good many boats have a paddle-wheel at the stern and gasoline power, and go where they will, quite independent of the rest of the world. Such boats do considerable business as tugs, towing other boats, barges, and rafts, and doing whatever small jobs come their way. Certain of these gasoline craft are floating sawmills and are known as “drifting boats.” In every bend of the river is lodged an enormous “drift” of floodwood — “millions of cords,” explained a Cairo man. “And some drifts are a mile across. Why, there’s enough firewood in the drifts between here and Memphis to supply the whole United States for six months. The drifting boats make considerable money dragging logs out of the mass, sawing them into boards, and selling the boards at the small towns along.”
A House-boat Dog
There are various other ways to make profit out of the river wreckage. Some men do a good business rescuing the ownerless trash that is afloat and working it up into cord-wood or sawing it into stove length. In New Orleans you often see miniature woodyards on the wharves, and I heard of men who “got rich” there selling stove wood they had manufactured from the river rubbish, twelve sticks for a nickel.
I saw at Vicksburg an allied industry, which was the conversion of stray cypress logs into shingles. The logs, as they were caught, were tied alongshore, and, lying there in the water, were laboriously sawed into sections of shingle length. When a section had been sawed, it was rolled up on the shore and split into moderate-sized blocks, and these were reduced with frow and maul to shingles in the rough. After that the shingles only needed a little shaving to smooth and taper them, and then could be packed and were ready for sale. Several shingle-makers were established alongshore, all negroes, and each man doing business on his own account. They had rough little shanties to work in when the weather was not favorable. I tried to find out something about the rate of production by this antique method, but the old shingle-man with whom I talked, said, “I never tried an experience to see how many I could do in a day.
He affirmed that he only got a bare living out of the work, and added, “I’m a poor man, but I got a proud mind. If I had de money accordin’ to my mind I’d be all right, I do believe. What I want now is to see de river fall like de bottom gwine to drop out. I want it to git off de farmers’ land. Dey ought to be plantin’. If de water keep on disaway, dey won’t be prosp’rous, an’ den dey cain’t buy shingles.”
About this time a colored woman came down to the shore laden with a basket and bundles and prepared to get into a boat. Some distance off across the water was an island, and among the bushes over there were a number of houseboats, in one of which the woman lived.
“How’s yo’ man?” asked the shingle-maker.
“Oh, jes’ so-so,” was the reply.
“He been laid up a long time now.”
“Yas, an’ when I think how many been took sick an’ died since I begun takin’ keer o’ him, I wonder dat he am alive.”
“Hit yo’ good nussing, sister. Dat’s better’n a whole lot o’ dis hyar strong doctor’s medicine.”
“I know it; but dar’s spells when I’m afraid I git worried to death he feel so bad an’ miserable all de time. Hit seem like he not got any kind o’ patience. He jes’ draggin’ aroun’ complainin’, an’ he tell how heaven is de lan’ of rest, and he ready to go dar. He say he doan’ never want to be ole unless he gwine to git well.”
“Yo’ mus’ cheer him up, sister,” advised the shingle-maker. “Tell him he gettin’ along as well as could be expect. Hit never do to disencourage a sick person. Dey die den anyway.”
Two of the old man’s boys, not yet in their teens, were with him and aided him more or less, but put in most of their time playing and idling. They were not interested in the conversation with the houseboat woman, and they talked about other matters. For instance, the older boy asked this curious question, “Ain’ yo’ never seen a muskeeter settin’ on a tree an’ bark?”
“Co’se I hain’t,” was the reply.
“Well,” said the first boy, “if he set on de tree he got to set on de bark too, ain’t he?”
The other boy could not dispute that proposition and after a little discussion, the first boy challenged his comrade with the remark that he could make him say “black.”
“No, yo’ cain’t,” declared the second.
“Yes, I kin — what de colors of de American flag?”
“Red, white, and blue,” responded the second boy.
“Dar, yo’ said blue!” exclaimed the first.
“But yo’ tol’ me yo’ make me say black,” the other protested.
“Well, yo’ done said black now,” said the first boy triumphantly.
There was an unusual number of shanty-boats along the Vicksburg river-front. The skipper of a gasoline craft said most of them were there on account of high water, but they would all “skedaddle” away when the river resumed its normal level. As for himself, his boat had been bringing wood from the “bayous and swamps,” and he had “got a pretty good dose of malaria back there,” and was waiting till he felt better.
At Memphis was another flotilla of houseboat refugees; but here many landspeople were among the boat dwellers. A crevasse had broken in the levee across the river, and a vast amount of country was flooded. Five thousand people had fled to the Memphis bluffs, and some were living in tents along shore, some in improvised huts, and some in houseboats. “It’s like an ocean over thar,” said one of the boat inhabitants — “no land anywhar. I tell you the farmers has a hard time hyar in the Mississippi valley, and I’m afraid the South’ll jis’ natcherly be ruined. I had a farm till last year. That was the worst year ever known in the history of the world, I believe. The flood come in March and kept raisin’ and raisin’ till it was higher’n we’d ever seen it. I had a big fine house that cost six or seven hundred dollars. It was on posts five feet off the ground, so I thought it was safe; but the water got into it and I had to make scaffolds to walk around on. Finally the water was most up to the eaves, and then come a wind with waves ten feet high that smashed the windows and knocked down my scaffolding and set tables and bureaus and everything afloat. It was distressin’! — awful! We had such a storm that ever’one thought me ‘n’ my ole woman was gone up.
“Lots o’ people were drowned jis’ like rabbits, an’ a good share o’ those that lef’ their homes an’ got away had to camp on the levee. It was a dreadful, cold, stormy time of year, and thar was sickness an’ accidents an’ many deaths from the exposure. Thar was no way to git coffins — no way to git nothin’ — and they had to sew the bodies up in sacks with sand enough put in to make ‘em sink, and then they’d throw ‘em in the river. One woman whose brother was buried that way went crazy.
“For our cattle and horses every farmer had to build a raft — what we call a stock stomp. We’d have a fence around it, but the critters would be pretty well crowded on it and they’d git to fightin’ an’ hookin’ an’ push each other overboard.
“When the water went down thar was eighteen inches o’ mud in my house. It looked like the home of a dirt-dauber. I bored auger holes in the floors to let the water drean off, and me ‘n’ three niggers worked two days to git the mud out. My furniture busted to pieces or warped, so we couldn’t hardly use it, the floors swelled out of shape, the paint was ruined, and the stuff we’d stored in the loft was all mildewed. It was discouragin’ work tryin’ to dry things out.
“The farm was all cut to pieces and covered with sand ridges. I wouldn’t rent it ag’in, and the man that owned it had to take care of it himself. Usually, you could get three hundred dollars’ worth of watermelons off it and twenty bales o’ cotton and a thousand bushel o’ corn. Well, he planted watermelons, but they all burnt up before they got two inches high. Cotton, he didn’t try, and he only got forty bushel of corn, and that was nothin’ but nubbins — calf feed.
“I’d had enough, and reckoned I was ready for a change of residence. After a while I had a chance to buy a good boat hull for two dollars, and by spending twenty more I built me a fine boat. I could sell it easy this year for a hundred dollars, and lots o’ these drowned-out folks would jump at the bargain.”
One of the boats near by where we stood talking had a sign painted on the sides — “Medicines for Sale.” The peddling boat is a recognized institution, and some of them carry a general stock of merchandise worth five or ten thousand dollars. Then there are the “show boats,” the best of which are “floating-palaces” to the eyes of the average valley dweller. “They have talking machines on board,” said the Memphis man, “and music and dancing, and they act plays. Some of the big ones can take on several hundred people. These opera boats travel all the year round. In summer they’re up among the Pennsylvania mines and Northern cities, and in winter they’re among the great plantations and towns of the South. Nice reserved seats cost seventy-five cents to a dollar and a half; but most of the seats are jis’ benches and only cost a quarter.”
Still another type of houseboat life is to be found in the “River Revivalists.” “They keep on the go, too,” declared my Memphis friend, “and they stop at landings along and advertise meetings on board. I ain’t much confidence in ‘em. Some are only fakirs. I’ve seen considerable much of ministers, and I’ve made up my mind that generally, ashore or afloat, they’ve taken up their callin’ as a business and are workin’ for what thar is in it. They beg every time they look at you. The mo’ money you got, the bigger Christian you are. Yes, sir, you shove up five dollars to the preacher, and you c’n drink and cuss and rip and tear all you please.”
The houseboat industry that furnishes a living for the greatest number is fishing, and few of the larger towns on the river are without some of these houseboat fisher-people. I became especially well acquainted with them at the mouth of the Ohio. Most of their boats were moored near the Kentucky shore, and in order to visit them I rowed across the Ohio in a rough little skiff I borrowed of a Cairo shanty-boat man. It was a one-mile pull through a yellow flood streaked with driftwood. A brisk wind blew and the waves heaved and now and then broke into a whitecap. At length I reached land, tied my boat and followed the shore up-stream on foot, passing in places through dense groves of cottonwoods and again along strips of exposed beach. Both among the trees and outside were shanty-boats and a variety of little dwellings, the latter all on stilts, perched well above the clutch of the floods.
The boat families often had chickens, and owned a dog or two and possibly a cat. All these creatures get used to their floating habitations and accept them as the natural thing. One man pointed out to me three chickens about a fortnight old; and they were orphans, he said, with no mother hen to look after their welfare, and yet they were quite able to take care of themselves on water or land. In fair weather they spent most of their time scratching around and picking up a living on the shore, but they recognized the boat as their home, and would walk up and down the long gang-plank as carefully and safely as any cautious human being could.
It was the same way with the shanty-boat children, he affirmed. They soon learned the necessities and dangers of the situation and nothing ever happened to them. The bit of deck fore and aft was never protected with railings, and there was naught to prevent the careless child from tumbling overboard; but these children were not careless in that respect and had just as few mishaps as if they lived on land.
Alongshore, neighboring the boats, were many nets, lines, and other fishing-tackle. Some of the men were overhauling their tackle, others were loafing, still others were out in their boats pulling up the lines they had set. Cairo furnished a good market, and there was not the least difficulty in turning a catch of fish into money.
I had a long talk with a farmer whose house was on the bank. He was sitting on his porch reading a newspaper as placid and contented as if he had not a care in the world. The day was pleasant, and everything was favorable for work, and he said he had “right smart of ground to make ready”; but it was Friday, and the week was so far gone he thought it hardly worth while to begin farming until Monday. Besides, he felt obliged to watch the river. It was eating into the bank a few rods away, opposite his house, and the situation was not without danger.
Several houseboats were in view. The man was an old resident, and he knew the river people well. “I been acquainted with a heap of ‘em,” said he, “and ninety per cent of ‘em are as honest and good-hearted as you could ask. It’d surprise you what fine, intelligent people there are among ‘em. Now the man in this hyar first boat hyar — his father was one of the leading men in Paducy. He’s been well raised and educated and is as refined a man as there is in the country. But he got to drinkin’ and so went on the river.
“Another thing that’d surprise you is the amount of money some o’ these fellows make — often twenty-five and fifty dollars in a day — yes, sir! If they could ketch fish the year round they’d be millionnaires; but from the end of June to February it’s kind o’ dull and fish ain’t at all plenty. Then, too, when they make money, most of ‘em drink it up. Whiskey is the only thing that keeps ‘em from gettin’ rich.”
The shanty-boat men, themselves, did not speak very enthusiastically of their profits. Many fish are caught, but they are not nearly as plentiful as a score of years ago. The law interferes, too, and the boat-dwellers cannot catch whenever and wherever they please. For instance, as one man explained, “We ain’t allowed in the spring to put wing-nets back in the woods across the lakes and slues where the fish spawn. If we do, the officers raise all sorts of hell with us, though they take no notice of the farmers doin’ the same sort o’ thing.”
The autumn is the shanty-boat season. “Sometimes,” said the man I have just quoted, “you c’n count ten or fifteen in sight all at the same time floatin’ down-stream. Maybe a boat will carry a whole family, movin’ with their cows, hogs, and ever’thing, and the household plunder’ll be piled all over. But usually thar’s only a bunch o’ men on board. Perhaps they’ll be mechanics. Work has played out an’ they’re goin’ South to hunt; or they got the idee it’s too cold up North and they’re followin’ the summer. Thar’s as fine mechanics as thar is in the country gone down past hyar thataway. Wherever night overtakes ‘em, they tie up in some little pocket along shore that makes a harbor for ‘em, and thar they’re at home. It’s kind o’ risky navigatin’ for a greenhorn. You got to look out and not git ketched in a storm and have your boat swamped against the bank, and you got to be careful if you camp on shore whar you stop. First time I was on the river I went down with two other men in a skiff, and afternoons we’d stop about four o’clock and gather up driftwood for a fire and to make a windbreak. Once we stayed in some cottonwoods near which the river made an eddy, and we put up a little hut about fifty feet back from the water; but during the night the bank and big trees all caved off so one corner of our shanty overhung the river.
“When they get down the river the boats ain’t worth much. Very likely you can’t get more’n thirty-five dollars for a boat that cost a hundred. Lots of ‘em are sold for about what they’re worth for kindling-wood. But then, if a man is tired of his boat, he’s ready to give it away merely to git shet of it. All he wants is to sell for enough money to take him back home; and the next year he may build another and do the very same trick again. I sometimes wonder what becomes of all the shanty-boats. Very few ever go North, and thar’s been enough gone down to block up the river from the gulf to Memphis.”
To the landspeople of the valley the river is sometimes a demon of destruction; but to the houseboat tribe its aspect is seldom otherwise than friendly. It is a bountiful fairy, a stream of romance full of change and fascination. Whether it rises or falls, it carries the houseboats on its bosom. It is a great highway, and from the borders the boat-dwellers watch its varied traffic. It brings much floating drift from which they can pick whatever is of use to them, and it furnishes easy means of moving to new quarters hundreds of miles away if that is their desire. Elbow room and home comforts are in many ways lacking on the houseboats; and yet people who once adopt the river life seldom abandon it. They gain a living without much trouble, are care-free and bohemian, and there is a charm about the water that keeps them content with what, to an outsider, looks like a very rude existence.
NOTE. — Wherever you stop along the Mississippi be on the watch for the houseboats. They are a perpetual delight to the lover of the picturesque, and the life of their inmates is unfailingly interesting. Indeed, these gypsies of the water seem to stir some primitive impulse in one and keep the fancy on tiptoe. You can, if you choose, build or buy a boat yourself and float with the current down the stream. The most favorable places for seeing the boats, judging from my own experience, are St. Paul, Cairo, Memphis, and Vicksburg.