Houseboat Photograph by C. Page Hatch. Loaned by the Skinner House, Griggsville, Illinois
Houseboats on the Illinois River
Houseboats dotted the shores of the central Illinois River from the 1890s to the 1930s.
They had flat bottoms and a cabin of one or more rooms with basic furnishings such as a stove, table and chairs, and a bed. A researcher funded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s described a typical houseboat in good condition:
The exterior of this houseboat is nicely painted. The inside walls are sealed, though unpainted. All the four rooms were furnished like an ordinary cottage: linoleum on the floors, a kitchen range, a polished table, a stand made of walnut, an iron bed covered with an attractive spread, an air-tight heater, a rocking chair, and dining chairs. One window was filled with plants and vines. Dainty drapes were at the one-panel windows. Small framed pictures were one the walls. Everything was neat and very clean.
During the era from the late 1890s to the late 1930s, some river residents earned their living harvesting the river while they lived on houseboats at the river's edge. There were year-round houseboat residents, seasonal migrants, and seasonal river workers. The social status of land-based residents was higher than that of river dwellers, often because land-dwellers belonged to a close network of religious, educational, and social organizations, but there were always independently minded individuals who preferred the freedom of the houseboat.
Most houseboat dwellers owned their boats, while a smaller portion rented. However, houseboat owners seldom owned the land to which they moored. Most received the permission of landowners when they tied up to the riverbank or beached their boat during the winter, but there were some squatters.
A majority of the year-round residents of houseboats made most or all of their living from the river. They anchored at the river's edge, in the shelter of the banks, or at the margin of the bottoms. Fishing and musseling were the major income-producing endeavors. The houseboats might move up and down the river during the summer to reach the mussel sites and fishing areas. River harvesters of fish and mussels were not the only people who lived in houseboats. Houseboats were resided in by families of men who worked as tradesmen and craftsmen in the towns. [In this era over ninety percent of women did not work outside the home, but they did participate in tasks related to musseling and fishing.] In the winter, the boats were dragged up on shore to avoid damage by the freezing and melting ice, but the owners still lived in the boats, perhaps gaining employment in the nearby town.
On the other hand, seasonal migrants lived in the houseboats while they moved up and down the river with the seasons, possibly moving off the boats from late Fall to Spring. An example of seasonal river workers were those who musselled during the summers. They might rent a houseboat for the season.
50th Anniversary party. Party for George and Hattie Woodruff, held on the houseboat they lived in for years before bringing it into town. Loaned by Donald Woodruff, Joliet, Illinois
Economic Advantages and Disadvantages
Houseboats had the advantage over land-based homes of being tax-free, low-rent, and portable to move to where there was work or harvesting opportunities. This was important for fishermen and mussellers and for many others, especially during the Depression, when the number of people on the river increased after farms began to fail and industrial jobs were lost.
Another advantage of the houseboat was that one could not get flooded out, with possessions damaged, as many Illinois River inhabitants did in high flood years.
Generally, as houseboat residents became more economically successful, they moved into houses on shore. Changes in the supply of mussels and the regulations against their harvest also caused others to leave the river. As railroad and roads improved and river resources dwindled or became regulated, there was more incentive for people to live in houses rather than houseboats.