© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Flatboat

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Looking for an idea to spice up your next garage sale? Have I got an idea for you, fresh from the first farmers who arrived in this area in the 1830s to begin making a breadbasket out of the Iowa and Illinois prairies.

The farms they cleared along the Upper Mississippi and its tributaries were rich and bountiful, but getting the produce to market taxed even American ingenuity. There were no roads or railroad. Boats could easily float down the river, but there was no return against the five-mile-an hour current of the Mississippi.

The solution turned out to be simple, as all good solutions are. Farmers turned the trees they had cleared into lumber, and during the lull of winter, built a simple flatboat: a rectangular box, twenty to fifty feet long. The flat bottom let the boat float in the shallowest water. 

On top of the box they might place a crude cabin against the weather.

Meanwhile, in season, the produce of the farm was gathered in. The grain was threshed, the potatoes dug, the corn shelled, the apples ripened, the walnuts shucked. In their spare time, the farm family would spin and weave, gather honey, make crafts and wooden utensils for sale.

When all was ready, the assortment of produce was piled into the hold of the flatboat, and the farmer would begin his trip downriver propelled only the current. He stopped wherever there was a settlement or a city and sold what he could until everything was gone. He might get only as far as St. Louis, or he might have to go all the way to New Orleans.

And then the ingenious part, the flatboat itself became part of the produce. He took the boat apart and sold the lumber, much in demand in the growing settlements. There was no way to get it back upstream anyway.

This has you thinking, doesn't it? What if you were to get a large wagon, put all your garage sale items on it, and go from neighborhood to neighborhood? Or you could become a float in a local parade and sell as you went down the street. Remembering of course, to lower your prices the last two blocks.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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.