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The Crockery Barge

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Mark Twain described how the first sound of a steamboat whistle in the distance brought boys flocking to the levee—boys who dreamed of working on a steamboat when they grew up.

The steamboat was just as popular with boys on the Upper Mississippi, but a close second above St. Louis was the crockery barge, one of the most unusual boats on the river. It wasn't dreams that brought boys to the levee to meet the crockery barges, it was the pay.

The crockery barge was a boat unique to the little community of Fairport, Iowa, between Davenport and Muscatine. Fairport was nicknamed "Jugtown" because of the many beehive kilns which turned out pottery back in the 19th century. The kilns at Fairport turned out all kinds of pots: jugs, jars, milk crocks, churns, flowerpots, vases, and ornamental dishes.

Potters in Fairport sold all this ceramic once each year by loading it on a specially made barge, a hundred feet long by twenty feet wide. The barge hitched a tow from a steamboat upriver to the foot of Lake Pepin where it was released to float back down. The crockery was too fragile to risk traveling on the large waves of Lake Pepin itself.

The crockery barge floated down with the current at three miles an hour, steered by long oars. The barge was manned by the potter, his wife, and children, who lived in a little shanty at the rear of the barge.

At each town along the way, the crockery barge stopped to offer crockery to merchants, who came on board to make their pick. Here's where the boys came in. Town boys helped with the unloading and delivering of the churns, pots, and jugs. The boys did this gladly because Fairport's crockery barges did not pay in money, but with something much better: pottery ocarinas, or sweet potatoes as we used to call them, a small musical instrument that sounded much like a miniature calliope. An ocarina let a boy pretend he was a steamboat.

When the crockery was all sold, the barge floated back to Fairport, loaded up once again, and continued downstream toward St. Louis to repeat the process all over.

Fairport and its pottery are long gone, but remnants of a few ovens still exist, and, on quiet evenings, the echo of boys playing sweet potatoes.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.