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Until relatively recently, a seemingly large number of Arkansans lived on houseboats. Had you visited Des Arc on the White River in, say, 1900, you would have found dozens of houseboats tied up along the riverfront -- only a few hundred feet from the courthouse. Likewise, houseboats would dot the riverfronts in towns as diverse as Pocahontas and Jacksonport, Little Rock, or even the tiny village of Poteau on the Poteau River near Fort Smith. They were especially numerous along the lower White River.

The families living on houseboats were generally poor people who eked out a living by commercial fishing and hunting, digging mussel shells for the button factories (and the occasional pearl), gathering pecans in the autumn and trapping for furs in the winter. They were essentially the last of the hunter-gatherers in Arkansas history. It was a hard life, and it was made worse by the prejudice directed toward the "River Rats," as they were sometimes called.

Houseboats were usually about 10 feet wide and 40- to 50-feet in length, but no two were exactly alike. The great majority of the houseboats were built by their owners. The hull was flat-bottomed, and before the availability of outboard motors, the boat had to be towed or sometimes poled upstream. Most rivermen kept small boats for moving about, and, like many so-called "mobile homes" of today, the houseboats were infrequently moved.

According to the Arkansas Gazette newspaper, the largest houseboat ever seen in Little Rock docked in December 1904. Measuring 84 feet in length and 16 feet wide, the boat was carrying the family of the boat's deceased owner -- who had only a few days before been killed while launching the craft into the Arkansas River near modern-day Russellville.

The house portion of the craft was usually single-story in height, although I have a photograph of a two-story houseboat at Camden. Based on conversations with five former houseboat residents, most of the residences consisted of three rooms. Wood-burning cook stoves kept the houses warm during the winter months and scorching during the summers. Lighting was provided by kerosene lamps. Human waste, discretely referred to as "night soil," were usually thrown into the river downstream from the houseboat. Many if not most houseboat residents obtained drinking water from the town pumps where they were tied up. These groupings of houseboats were unflatteringly described as "shantytowns."

It was not unusual before World War II for businesses to operate from houseboats. In 1903, for example, a man with the intriguing name of C.H. Jeuryens sold river sand from his houseboat tied up "back of the statehouse." His advertisement mentioned he had a "new phone [number] 289," indicating his boat was permanently moored. Two years later a houseboat fitted with a moving picture show appeared at the mouth of the St. Francis River.

A well-known houseboat business was that of Hugo and Gayne Preller. Preller, who was a German immigrant married to a Kentucky teenager, ran a "floating studio" on the Mississippi River for several years before finally settling in Augusta, Woodruff County, in 1910. Hugo Preller was gifted in many ways; in addition to being a photographer, he was also a gunsmith, a watchmaker and a painter. He also made violins. Preller was also an excellent hunter and fisherman, helping him feed a family of eight children.

Apparently the Prellers divided the photography work, with Hugo taking the outdoor images and Gayne doing studio work both on the boat and at a studio at their Sears Roebuck mail order home in Augusta. A spectacular photo of the Preller houseboat clearly shows a large skylight atop the houseboat roof. Gayne Preller is today hailed as one of the early female photographers of considerable note. The fact that she treated black customers with respect resulted in Gayne's work including scores of images depicting black women in dignified poses. More than 2,000 Preller images survive.

The Preller family aside, many houseboat families faced considerable prejudice, if not open disdain. Shantytowns in some locales were condemned as havens for gambling, bootlegging and prostitution. And the growing public health movement brought attention to the houseboat communities as threatening the public with periodic outbreaks of typhoid and other diseases.

In June 1920, after typhoid had been diagnosed in a family of houseboat residents at Clarendon, Dr. C.W. Garrison, Arkansas state health officer, openly condemned houseboat communities as "generally highly unsanitary." One news reporter paraphrased Dr. Garrison as stating: "Houseboats are in many cases a real menace to cities along rivers."

Shantytowns also had a reputation for harboring criminals. Marked Tree in Poinsett County was especially bedeviled by a wide-open shantytown on the nearby Little River. In July 1901, two successful boat men operating on the l'Anguille River disappeared, and their houseboats were cut lose. The large shantytown located at Benzol Village, near the confluence of the White and Arkansas rivers in Arkansas County, was torn apart by a feud in December 1929 when local river man Henry Applegate was shot "as he sped down the river in a motor boat." That shooting was believed to have been caused by "a killing for which Perry Martin is now under a five-year sentence."

The large shantytown on the Black River at Pocahontas in northeast Arkansas witnessed a deadly confrontation between a French Canadian-born houseboat man named James Chavari and town marshal John Norris. Chavari killed the young marshal, whereupon he was thrown in jail. Newspapers reported that "feeling against Chavari is running high," and soon a group of men broke into the jail and hanged Chavari from a bridge. (Interestingly, one of the vigilantes breaking down the door was accidentally struck by the battering ram and later died.)

Regardless of the daunting conditions facing the houseboat communities, life in a houseboat had a certain lure. A Feb. 7, 1930, Associated Press report told of the recent death of Mrs. Mary Annie Douglass, a 52-year-old who had spent her entire 32-year marriage living in the same houseboat: "Thirty two years ago she went to the river as the girl bride of H.L. Douglass, riverman, and there she had born seven children -- three of whom died. Her illness of four days in a Helena hospital was the longest time she has remained away from the houseboat."

Mrs. Douglass' body was transported from Helena to her native Lake Village in her houseboat -- "her dying request was that she be taken back to her childhood home at Lake Village, there to be buried from the houseboat to which she came as a bride 32 years ago."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

NAN Profiles on 03/03/2019

Print Headline: No place like home

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