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Pearl Fever Sweeps through the Upper Mississippi River Valley

Photo courtesy of the Muscatine History and Industry Center
While clammers made a modest income by selling shell to pearl button factories, each had

grandiose visions of finding a giant pearl and becoming instantly wealthy.

In 1901 a man by the name of Cardine pulled a valuable treasure from the muddy Mississippi that gave him instant wealth and fueled a fervor that had been burning in the hearts of mussel fishermen from central Minnesota to southern Iowa for several decades. His story illustrates a rare occurrence of a tumultuous era in the Upper Mississippi River Valley that spawned a short-lived multimillion-dollar industry and ultimately led to the decimation of an animal population.

In those days great mussel beds lined the river from Lake Pepin, a wide bulge in the river near Red Wing, to Muscatine, Iowa, which rose to fame as the “Pearl Button Capital of the World.” Cardine was among those who fished mussels to sell their shells to factories that produced pearl buttons, a luxury item among the privileged in the United States and Europe. It was a part-time endeavor for most and the “clammers” were much like gold miners of the Wild West, with one exception: at the end of the day they were guaranteed to bring home something of value – pearl-lined mussel shells. Yet like miners, they were always searching for that great nugget of gold; theirs took the form of a perfectly round, lustrous pearl.

Cardine lived in Prairie du Chien, Wis., epicenter of the pearl-buying trade. That city once had 27 pearl buyers, earning it the international reputation as “central mart of the American freshwater pearl.” When Cardine discovered his pearl he immediately knew it was of tremendous value. He tried to keep it secret so he could consult with a confidant about its value but that proved impossible. Word of his discovery spread like wildfire and by 9 p.m. an ambitious pearl buyer was knocking on his door. Reluctantly, he let him in, showed him the perfect 54-grain gem and began what turned out to be a marathon negotiation session. They haggled and dickered over the price until 3 a.m., finally agreeing upon $2,000, equivalent to nearly $60,000 today. Cardine thought it might be worth more but he caved in after experiencing anxiety that the pearl might crack as it dried out, a common occurrence. Nonetheless, he walked away happy as a clam and used the money to purchase a house, among other things.

According to a comprehensive report published in the Minneapolis Journal on August 1, 1903, a clammer could receive $5-$40 a ton for shell, averaging $1-$2 day in income. One might think harvesting 2,000 pounds of shell is difficult but it wasn’t. The river was so thick with mussels that a clammer could easily catch a ton in just a few days, and they almost always found pearls. Most sources say a pearl was found in every 100 mussels but the majority were baroque or blister pearls, which were usually small, irregularly shaped and of little value. No matter, each pearl discovery conjured up grandiose images of what was possible: finding a giant gem that would make the clammer rich.

The two most valuable pearls taken from Mississippi mussels were found near Lansing, Iowa, in 1902, and both were worth a fortune. One sold for $50,000 and the other for $65,000. The larger pearl was said to be nearly an inch in diameter and flawless in color and form. It’s staggering to think that one pearl could be worth $1.8 million, today’s equivalent. It was a very lucky find, indeed.

Mississippi river pearls varied in size and color. The most common color was white but those found in more mineral-rich waters had shades of pink and purple. A pink pearl discovered near Red Wing at the turn of the twentieth century sold for $1,200, about $35,000 today. That gem reportedly ended up among the jewels of an English duchess.

Another legend tells the tale of the Genoa Pearl, found near Genoa, Wis., south of La Crosse. Pearl buyer John Peacock was the first to acquire that rarity, nearly one-inch in diameter. He met with a clammer at a tavern in nearby Harpers Ferry, Iowa, and examined it by dim lantern light. Later he said “It seemed all the colors of the rainbow danced in this gem.” He counted out $1,000 and gave it to the clammer. Little did the fisherman – or Peacock – know its true worth. The pearl changed hands several times and its value increased exponentially with each transaction. A Chicago fine art dealer bought it for $5,000 then sold it to a buyer in New York for $10,000. That savvy buyer sold it to someone in England for $20,000, and it eventually became part of the British Royal Family’s jewel collection.


Get rich quick

Common to most get-rich-quick schemes, few clammers ever found pearls of great value. Most discovered small gems worth between $2 and $30, equivalent to $50 to $750 today. That was good money but not enough to make someone quit his day job. While the lucky few were able to buy a house or farm with their pearl earnings, others believed the instant wealth was a curse. That was the case for the Fred Atchison Family, who fished mussels on Lake Pepin. One day they hit the jackpot when young Myrtle opened a large shell, kneaded the meat and squeezed out an exquisite, sizeable pearl. They sold it for $1,500, enough to buy a house, a small houseboat, a few other boats, new clothes and Christmas presents. “We lived like kings for a while,” said her brother Reuben years later in an oral history interview.

Tragedy beset the family in subsequent years. One spring day Myrtle and her two older brothers gorged themselves on unripe apples and plums from trees in their grandparents’ yard. That night the children fell violently ill and the boys died. Myrtle survived but died a few years later during the flu epidemic of 1918. She was just 16 years old. A year later, their mother passed away. Reflecting on those tragedies, family members believed they were linked to that fateful day Myrtle found the pearl.


Formation of a pearl

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Mississippi in Minnesota has 50 mussel species, 23 of which are now endangered or threatened. Their names are colorful and often describe their appearance: threeridge, wartyback, washboard, elephant’s ear, pimpleback, ebony, et al. Mussels can live up to 100 years and, as expected, the oldest ones produce the biggest pearls. The most valuable gems were found near the lip of the shell.

The life cycle of a mussel and the formation of a pearl are marvelous stories in their own right. After a mussel egg is fertilized, the larva, called glochidia, must parasite a fish, often landing in its gills. Tissue from the fish forms over the glochidia, and a short time later is flushed out, falls to the riverbed and begins its slow growth process.

Like clams and oysters, mussels are bivalve mollusks. They reside on the riverbed and feed by filtering food as it floats by. They are sensitive creatures and clamp down sharply once something touches their shell. A pearl begins to form when a foreign object becomes trapped within the shell. As a defense mechanism, the mussel emits a substance called nacre, more commonly called mother of pearl. The nacre coats the object to keep it from damaging the mussel, and it accumulates in layers over time to create the pearl. Nacre also lines the inside of the shell, thus allowing pearl buttons to be cut from shells.

Pearls come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The classic sphere seen on rings and necklaces is most likely a cultured pearl from a salt water oyster. Pearl growing is a huge industry in China, Japan and other Asian-Pacific countries, where pearls are mass-produced by inserting a round, polished foreign object into an oyster and allowing the animal to do the rest. Interestingly, the most common material used for many years was shell fragments of mussels from the Mississippi and other North American rivers.


New discoveries

Today, finding a Mississippi river pearl is highly unlikely because harvesting mussels is illegal. One would need to find it in a dead mussel. In Minnesota, all 50 species are protected by law. However, you may collect shells if you have a fishing license. The law says you can take 24 whole shells or 48 half shells from dead mussels of species that are not endangered or threatened. Shell collection is allowed May 16 through February.

Terry Eagle is in rare company because he found a valuable pearl in recent years. As assistant director of the Muscatine History and Industry Center, he was sorting through a barrel of shell for a display at the museum and noticed something roll out.

“I thought it was a rock,” he said. “I spit on it, wiped it off then almost went to my knees.”

That large, irregularly-shaped pearl is now on display at the museum. It has been valued at as much as $2,000.

Few are likely more familiar with freshwater pearls than Nadine Ifrah Leo, owner and founder of The Mississippi River Pearl Jewelry, Co., in Alma, Wis., a quintessential river town about an hour and a half from St. Paul. From the overlook atop the towering Buena Vista Bluff, one can see the commercial district hugging the river. Leo’s quaint and colorfully painted clapboard building is in the center of town. Inside you’ll find handcrafted jewelry designed by her and daughter Maya Nelson. A native of Morocco, Leo moved to Minnesota in 1965 to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts. Her obsession with pearls began when she found a bottle of them at an auction in rural Wisconsin. She soon began doing exhaustive research on river pearls. That took her to Prairie du Chien in 1982 where she met Don Lassard, owner of a shell camp. They hit it off and he gave her some valuable gems to help her get started. That act of generosity sparked a career that would one day make her the owner of the largest selection of American freshwater natural pearls in the world, and be dubbed “The Pearl Queen.”

The turning point came after Leo read a magazine article about a pearl that sold for $25,000. She had recently purchased some pearls for a pittance and had a hunch they were valuable.

“I immediately called Christie’s in Beverly Hills,” she said of the famous action house. “I mailed them four pearls and received nearly $23,000 for them. Not bad for a $50 investment.

“The fever set in. I still have it,” she added with a laugh. “It’s been an incredible journey, full of adventure, travel and meeting people.”

For more than 35 years Leo collected pearls from mussel hunters along the Upper Mississippi who gathered them by scuba diving. With a huge supply of gems, she started her business in 1982 in Stockholm, Wis. She moved to her current shop in 2002. She said Mississippi River pearls have worldwide acclaim because they are so rare. The chance of finding a large round pearl in a mussel is one in 50,000, she said.

Leo sells loose pearls and those set in rings, earrings, pendants and other unique creations. She has sold pearls to English Royalty and many large jewelers in Japan and other parts of the world. Her husband Burl tells why their customers are so fascinated with his wife’s jewelry. “Most people don’t know there were pearls in the Mississippi,” he said.


Welcome to Clam Town

The Minneapolis Journal report of 1903 romanticized the lifestyle of mussel fishermen. It described life in Clam Town, a rather large group of clamming families that had congregated in a camp presumably near Lake Pepin. One man there bragged that he “pays no taxes, has no fuel bills, since the river brings him all he needs in this line in the shape of driftwood, that he goes where he pleases and when he pleases, taking his home with him.” What the report didn’t mention was that the work was hard and stinky.

Clammers, the report said, were an itinerant lot, an “odd medley of people…the flotsam and jetsam of the irregularly employed.” They fished an area heavily then moved to the next bed. It was often a family affair, with men collecting and women and children boiling and sorting shell, and searching for pearls.

Fishermen used several techniques to extract mussels. The simplest and most inexpensive was polly wogging: simply walking into the river, feeling for shell beds with their feet, then diving for mussels and putting them in a gunnysack. Others used a large rake with a wire basket attached to scoop mussels into a boat. An odd-looking contraption called a scissors fork served the same purpose. It was essentially a long-handled tong. The larger operators had a flat bottom boat outfitted with two crowfoot bars mounted on each side. From the bars hung several chains, each containing a homemade lure fashioned from two strands of wire bent and braided into a four-pronged hook. The fishermen dragged the bars over mussel beds, and the sensitive creatures latched on to the passing hooks. The men hoisted the bars from the water, methodically plucked off the mussels and dropped bar for another pass. Once the boat was full, they went ashore and unloaded at camp.

The camps consisted of tents and shacks made of driftwood and tar paper and were said to be friendly places where “theft and dishonesty are almost unknown.” Offshore, the more affluent resided in houseboats.


The biggest problem was the stench. Ripe odors arose from the mussels as they boiled in large tanks over a fire. Those tending the tank spent their day cracking open shell, scooping out meat and searching for pearls, and sorting the shell by species. The fingers of those doing that work were said to be “as sensitive as the fingers of the blind.” At the end of the day the water was carefully strained because some pearls fell out during boiling. The meat was used as fish bait and animal feed, and the shells were sold by the ton to pearl button manufacturers.


Billions of buttons

There is no better place to learn about the pearl button industry than the Muscatine History and Industry Center, located in the heart of the old commercial corridor of the historic river town. Like many cities on the river, Muscatine is attempting to shed its worn shell and reinvigorate itself. The riverfront district has some trendy restaurants, a revitalized train depot and a bike path. A large hotel is now under construction and will offer patrons sweeping views of the river, the ironwork bridge to Illinois and the centerpiece attraction of the riverfront park: a large bronze statue of a clammer holding a scissors fork.

Running the center are Executive Director Mary Wildermuth and Terry Eagle, the man who discovered the large pearl. Both enthusiastically share the story of the rapid rise and fall of the industry with visitors from around the country, but Wildermuth defers to Eagle for complex historical matters.

Eagle was born and raised in Muscatine but grew up apathetic about his city’s claim to fame, having heard it time and time again. It became more personal for him after he married Madeleine McKee, co-owner of the 122-year-old McKee Button Company, one of three button factories remaining in town. She and her two brothers manage the factory, which now manufactures plastic buttons. The pearl button era ended in the late ’60s and the factories that survived are those that invested in the transition from pearl to plastic.

Eagle caught pearl button fever after learning of the industry’s complex history from his father-in-law. He joined the museum after retiring from the fire department, where he worked for 25 years. Now he is trying to light a fire under historians to bring the story national attention. He recently made application to the National Historic Trust to designate Muscatine as a National Treasure historic site.

“Mother of pearl was the Midwest gold rush and Muscatine is the Deadwood (South Dakota) of the Midwest,” said Eagle. “The dark side of this story is that we over-fished the Midwest rivers.”

In 1900, the pearl button industry was a $6 million endeavor. At the height of the boom in 1905, Muscatine produced 1.5 million buttons annually; 37 percent of those made in the world. The industry spanned 75 years but the mussel beds in the Mississippi became depleted within a decade from over-harvesting. Soon factories were importing shell from across the Midwest and some southern states.

The industry began when John Frederick Boepple discovered pearl-lined mussel shell in the Mississippi. He had worked in the industry in his native Germany using ocean shell but was forced out of business by high tariffs. He immigrated to the United States and brought his button-cutting technology with him.

Eagle explained that Muscatine was chosen by chance. Beopple knew mussels resided in Midwest rivers and was sure they were prevalent in the Mississippi. While scouring a river map, he noticed a large bend near Muscatine. He put his finger on that spot and decided to move there, gambling it would have the resources he desired. It did, both in shell and a willing workforce. But he faced a few problems, as discovered through his famous quote: “At last I found what I had been looking for; yet there was still a problem before me. I was without capital in a strange land and unfamiliar with the language.”

He opened shop in 1891 with one button-cutting machine, and convinced others to join him. Eventually, nearly half the town worked to produce buttons. Many operated small independent cutting shops in their garages, while others worked for one of a dozen large factories that turned the “blanks” into buttons. Like many industries in the early 1900s, working conditions at button factories were poor – long hours, low wages – and led to several labor disputes. That, along with limited availability of shell, the invention of plastic buttons and foreign competition, led to the industry’s demise.

Apparently, the handwriting was on the wall early on. Even the 1903 Minneapolis Journal report lamented: “Clam fishing is by no means as profitable as it was a few years ago, and each year the fisher must labor for smaller and yet smaller returns. If the mussel beds of the Mississippi River and elsewhere in this country are not protected, as they are in Europe, they will, of course, in time be exhausted.”

And exhausted they became.


The future of mussels

Concerned about the depletion of mussels, Congress took action in 1908 and established the Fairport Biological Station near Muscatine to study mussel propagation. Boepple, who had forseen the catastrophe, eventually joined the fight to save mussels. Ironically, this would be his demise.

In 1910 he began work at the station and assisted in research across the country. The next fall, while working a river in Indiana, he cut his foot on a shell and the wound became infected. He returned to Muscatine, where he was hospitalized, and died a short time later, on Jan. 30, 1912.

The American Fisheries Societythe Nature Conservancy and the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society have identified mussels as the most imperiled group of animals in North America, but efforts are underway to protect and repopulate them. According to the National Park Service, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a 72-mile stretch of river in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, is one of the last places on the river with habitat that can support native mussels. In recent years the endangered Higgen’s Eye and winged mapleleaf mussels have been reintroduced there and are making a strong comeback, along with other species.

Leading a statewide coalition to study and repopulate mussels is Mike Davis, project manager for the DNR’s Ecological and Water Resources unit in Lake City. He has a bachelor of science in biology from Winona State University and has been surveying mussels for 30 years. He helped orchestrate the first statewide mussel survey in 1999, a multi-agency effort that has provided much data on the mussel population. Most thrilling, he said, has been the discovery of three species new to Minnesota.

Before joining the DNR he was a commercial fisherman and clammer on Lake Pepin and other areas of the Mississippi. A certified scuba diver, he dove for mussels in the 1980s and often collected 1,000 pounds a day, earning 10 cents to 25 cents a pound. He also experienced first-hand how difficult mussel fishing can be, constantly having to move from bed to bed. He found some treasures but not enough to give him The Fever.

“We found some small pearls but they weren’t worth much,” he said, “just big enough to make an earring.”

Mussel hunting ended in the 1990s but Davis envisions the day it could return, possibly within 50 years.

“It would be cool to see it come back as a cottage industry for making pearl buttons again. It would have to be small scale and contained to avoid another tragedy of the commons,” he said, referring to the economic theory about resources being spoiled or depleted by people acting in their own self-interest.

There are some who would love to see that day return, and others who hope that history isn't repeated.

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