River Harvest Project Collection, 1987



Illinois Arts Council Ethnic and Folk Arts Program Director Egle Zygas orchestrated an initiative in 1987 to canvass folk arts around the state through several short-term survey grants. Jerry Enzler, Director of the Dubuque County Historical Society and what has become the Mississippi River Museum, and Daryl Watson through Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois (who later became Director of the Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Museum, now known as Galena History Museum) offered match for the project and secured one of the grants. Folklorist Janet C. Gilmore conducted the survey from April 22 to June 5, 1987. Curator Roger Osborne coordinated the photo-text exhibit that drew from the project materials and appeared at Highland Community College and the Dubuque County Historical Society.

Project History

One of several simultaneous Illinois folk arts projects, the River Harvest Project aimed to document Mississippi River folk cultural traditions north and south of Dubuque, Iowa, on both sides of the river, roughly from the Iowa-Minnesota border to the Quad Cities area of Moline, East Moline, and Rock Island, Illinois, and Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa. Folklorist Janet C. Gilmore focused primarily on commercial fishermen, flatboat builders, and fish market owners in northwestern Illinois, northeastern Iowa, and southwestern Wisconsin, but also looked into clamming (musseling), duckboat building, and duck decoy carving. She encountered a range of storytelling and magical practices, along with local paintings reflecting river scenes, activities, fish, and fish foodways on area businesses and other public spots. She contacted over 30 people, formally interviewed 17, and tape-recorded 12, investigating such topics as hoop-net knitting, basket-trap building, custom wooden or aluminum flatboat building, ice fishing gear and boats, and a range of fish foodways traditions including pickling, smoking, frying, ethnic fish preferences, and marketing distribution.

Gilmore presented her findings through public presentations, 1987-1989, at the Inland Waters Maritime Preservation Seminar in Dubuque, the Galena-Jo Daviess County History Museum, the Heritage League of Northwest Illinois in Stockton, Illinois, the LaSalle County Historical Museum in Utica, Illinois, as well as on WDBQ radio and at several professional folklore gatherings. At the Dubuque County Historical Society, she co-presented with Dubuque commercial fisherman John “Ducky” Duccini, who had been engaged by the organization for summer commercial fishing demonstrations and interpretation.