Sidebar 16: Musseling in the Mississippi Watershed - David Starbuck

Up and down the Mississippi River watershed, mussels have supported important industries and produced millions of dollars in income to men and women since the 1860s. Until the turn of the twentieth century, pearl rushes created boom-town-like atmospheres, and the revenue from pearl sales exceeded that of almost every other natural resource industry, except timber, in many areas. In the twentieth century, shell buttons eclipsed pearls as the mainstay of the mussel industry. Remains of musseling vessels and processing and transport facilities line riverbanks in sixteen states. Together with the written records of these industries and the recollections of musseling families, they tell the important history of "washboards, pigtoes, and muckets."

In a most fascinating study, Cheryl Claassen (Appalachian State University) has visited many sites of the mussel industry, ridden on the brail boats, interviewed the musseling families and fisheries officers, and examined the production of shell and pearl buttons between 1891 and ca. 1950. While freshwater bivalves from the Mississippi watershed may seem an unusual basis for a high-profile industry, some individuals became instantly wealthy from the discovery of freshwater pearls, and many others made a satisfactory living for generations through the production of buttons. Over a period of years, inventors designed the machinery needed to process buttons from hard freshwater shells. As a result, dozens of manufacturing plants and blank cutting shops opened, and this natural resource industry spread out along dozens of rivers. Unfortunately, as Claassen has documented, the shell button industry had died by 1950, and now the cultured pearl industry is rapidly replacing the natural pearls that commercial musselers used to harvest in the Mississippi Valley watershed.