Maggie Lee Sayre–A Glimpse of Shantyboat Life

Maggie Lee Sayre–A Glimpse of Shantyboat Life

By Tom Rogers

Vol. 8, No. 1, 1986, pp. 12-14

Maggie Lee Sayre, born deaf, never heard water slap boat thwarts. Yet during her half century on the Tennessee River she compiled an unrivaled record of life there.

Her record is a rare stream of more than four-hundred photographs shot while she lived on the river in a houseboat, or “shantyboat,” as many called the floating wood homes. Her photos were displayed-and she was on hand to discuss them-during the Tennessee River Folklife Center’s dedication celebration April 19. The Center is at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Historical Area at Eva, Tennessee.

Organizers of the twentieth annual Festival of American Folklife, to be held this summer in Washington, D.C., have invited Sayre as one of about ninety Tennesseans who will make up the Festival’s spotlight on the Volunteer State this year. The festival is presented by the Smithsonian Institution and National Park Service.

And later this year, from September 8 to October 15, Mud Island at Memphis will present the first showing of the traveling exhibit of Sayre’s photos, “Maggie Lee Sayre: Pictorial Narrative of a River Life.” The Tennessee Folk Society, with a grant from the Southern Arts Federation, is preparing the exhibit, which is to tour for two years.

Excited by the recognition coming her way, Sayre still sees her riverine life as precious, closeknit years with her parents, Archie and Mary Sayre. Using simple box cameras, she froze those years in snapshots she keeps now to “remember always.”

In one series of four photos, made in 1938, she recorded the process of tarring hoop nets.

“Archie Sayre and helper Charlie dyed black tar,” she explained of the sequence. “Papa stirred around the nets in the big barrel for two or three minutes, then pulled

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them out of the barrel to hang the nets in trees. When the nets were made they were white.”

Another photo, of a visitor boarding the Sayres’ moored houseboat, brought from her an explanation of how her family had tied a forked stick to a tree on shore to hold the houseboat safely off the bank. A picture from 1938 shows the “live can” Archie Sayre used to keep his catch fresh to increase its market value.

Another shot, of friends fishing from the houseboat deck, shows on the wall behind them the rolls of line from which the Sayres uncoiled lengths to mend snag nets.

Sayre said her father preferred fishing the Tennessee River because it yielded bigger fish than other waterways. She said he caught “any kind of catfish, buffalo, carp, spoonbill.”

“Did you ever have a name for your houseboat?” she was asked.

“Never know to call a name,” she answered.


She nodded “Yes” and mouthed the word: “Home.”

Spry and good-humored at sixty-six-her birthday was April 4-Sayre communicates by written note. Seldom does she move about without a pen and notepad.

She and her sister, Myrtle, were born a year apart. Myrtle, also deaf, died at sixteen. Maggie Sayre’s father, who survived her mother, died in 1977. Maggie Sayre has lived in a nursing home since then.

Between the ages of seven and nineteen she attended a school for the deaf at Danville, Kentucky, and spent summers on the river. When she finished school, in the late 1930s, she returned to live on the river year-round.

Here’s her account:

“Archie and Mary met her at the depot and they all returned home and were very happy.

“They moved to the Tennessee River. They sailed the houseboat and motor boat to Tom Creek. They stayed there for three years. They continued to sell fish to a market.

“They then moved to Click Creek near Sugar Tree, Tennessee. After that they moved to several places down the Tennessee River and stayed a few weeks in one place.

“They decided they like Click Creek best, so they moved back. Maggie’s mother got sick and was taken to Jackson Hospital. She later died. She was buried in Paducah, Kentucky.

“The houseboat was getting old, so they moved to a house on Brodie Road. This was in 1971. Archie liked to hunt and they enjoyed eating ducks, squirrel and rabbits.

“Archie became sick and had to stop fishing in 1974. He died March, 1977.”

Their three-room floating home was sold and moved ashore to be used as a home. Today it is unoccupied and crumbling. Some folklorists hope to preserve it.

The Sayres’ boat was larger than most, and its motor gave them a mobility most houseboaters lacked, according to Tom Rankin, who worked with Sayre in 1982-83 when he was doing research for the Tennessee River Folklife Center.

The Sayres stayed on the river longer than most shantyboaters, said Rankin, who now is Director of Programs with the Southern Arts Federation.

Shantyboat life “was mostly a drifting life,” he said. It was “pretty extensive up until the 1930s,” but the New Deal signaled the beginning of the end for the gypsy-like houseboaters, and “by the 50s and 60s they were told to get off the river.”

Although the shantyboat life is part of the past, the river still draws and shapes those who live near it,

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according to Nancy Michael, folklorist at the Tennessee River Folklife Center at Nathan Bedford Forrest park. Today more than two thousand persons in the seven counties bordering the river hold commercial permits to take fish and mussels, she said.

So Sayre felt at home at the Center’s celebration. Many persons whose photographs or handiwork are displayed in the Center’s exhibits were also part of the day’s events.

“As you walk through here you will see a lot of people who are coming,” explained Michael. “That’s what we’re trying to do, get as many people as possible who have been contributing.”

Like T. J. Whitfield of Holladay, whose twenty-five foot-long musseling boat, Betsy, is the museum’s centerpiece.

The festival officially dedicated the $315,000 center, which opened last year.

River people, Michael said, are marked by “their independence…and their aesthetic sense. When they talk about the river it’s obvious they have a sense of it, a love of it.”

She pointed out a display board with river woman Ada Roberson’s words:

“I ain’t got but one thing to say: Enjoy everything you do. Get all the experience you can at anything you can. I wouldn’t take nothin’ for the years I spent on the river.”

“It’s a healthy way of livin’. You get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. You work hard…in the way of a job. One thing-it’s not nerve rackin’ like factory work. You ain’t got somebody on your shoulder yelling ‘Make production, Make production’-If there comes a day that you don’t feel like going out there, you can stay at home. It’s a good way of life.”

Tom Rogers is a staff writer for the Nashville Tennessean–where this article originally appeared.