Writer Brings River to Life

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on September 8, 2002

Pat Middleton sits on the bow of a historic paddlewheeler cruising the Mississippi River and doing what she considers her life’s work. The majestic bluffs and beaches offer a picturesque backdrop as Middleton tells colorful stories about the nation’s most famous waterway.

“What I really enjoy is sharing the natural history of the area with people who care about it,” says Middleton, who works as a guest lecturer several times a year aboard riverboats such as the American Queen and the Mississippi Queen. “Where else can I get 400 to 500 people deeply interested in the river at one time?”

Middleton, who has authored a series of books on the Mississippi, has an intimate relationship with the river, living along its bank in Stoddard, Wis. (pop. 815).

For the last dozen years, she has traveled up and down the river to help fill what she views as a void as wide as the Mississippi itself—a void she discovered while searching for books to give an Australian friend who yearned to learn about the river. It turned out little had been written about America’s grandest waterway.

“It seemed like the last person to write about it was Mark Twain,” Middleton says. Her discovery and her passion for the mighty river prompted her to explore its course from St. Paul, Minn., to Memphis, Tenn. From her experiences, she wrote her three-volume series, Discover! America’s Great River Road.

The books feature cities and villages, natural history, heritage, recreation, and other points of interest along the river. Maps, calendars of events, and photos can be found throughout the guides.

“Pat has an obvious enthusiasm for the river,” says Karen “Toots” Maloy, who also tells stories about the river for The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. “She shares information with the passengers every chance she gets.”

On and off the river, Middleton brings stories about the Mississippi to life. During a lecture she gave for people who are blind, she helped them encounter the river through their other senses. Portraying Caroline Phelps, the wife of an 1830s trader, Middleton wore a handmade buckskin dress so they could feel the softness of the tanned hide. They heard her beads—various clam and buttonholed shells and alligator teeth—clinking as she walked by them.

Middleton’s lectures and books are based on conversations with ordinary people she meets along the river. She heads to coffeehouses, taverns, and other hangouts and initiates meetings with locals.

“I think the best stories come from the fishermen and what they pull out of their nets each day,” she says, describing the 50-pound catfish, paddlefish, and sturgeon the river produces.

“I listen to people’s stories,” Middleton adds. “The stories in the books are on what they think is important along the river.”

The result is user-friendly books that invite regular feedback from people who often tell her they read them out loud in their boats and cars as they travel. Her career involves other endeavors related to the Mississippi River as well.

She self-publishes her books through her company, Great River Publishing. She also has published several books on the river by other authors, including One Man and the Mighty Mississippi by Capt. Norman Hillman.

Her extensive Internet magazine, www.greatriver.com, is visited by 15,000 households each month. In addition, teachers in classrooms worldwide use her highly regarded Mississippi River Activity Guide.

“I love sharing the Mississippi River with people,” Middleton says. “It’s my little niche of God’s creation that I can share with people. I believe it’s what I’m put here to do.”