Mississippi River Clamming Days of Old

  Clam boats lined up along the shoreline of the Mississippi River near Winona.      Winona County Historical Society

Clam boats lined up along the shoreline of the Mississippi River near Winona. Winona County Historical Society

Fabulous tales of fortunes in 1924, freshwater pearls taken from Mississippi River mussels are still told along the shores of Lake Pepin and in the declining pearl button cities such as Muscatine, Iowa. Many of these accounts of “finds” in clam shells are true and recorded in the account books of jewelry houses of the past.


A wife of a clammer at Pepin, Wis., according to Emil Liers, Homer, once a shell and pearl buyer, sold a pearl taken from a pot of shells for a dollar to a buyer. Within two years, this same pearl after it had been peeled and polished passed through half a dozen buyers, was sold retail from a Fifth Avenue Store in New York for $25,000.

Pearl hunting, of course, was just a byproduct of the major industry of clamming that boomed along the upper river from 1900 to 1924. It made millions and, for a time, made Muscatine, Iowa, where most of the shells went by boat, the undisputed button capital of the U.S.

It was another example of the pioneering spirit of “feast of famine” during the height of this boom. Winona had two prosperous cutting factories located in the area near the foot of Johnson street. Straight Slough was the major source of shells for these factories.

But a mussel is a slow growing creature — taking a quarter of a century to develop into a four-inch shell. Fisherman who made as high as $50 a day, cleaned out the mussel beds of the river in a span of 25 years. Today only a few clammers are left on the upper river.

Read entire article here: http://www.winonadailynews.com/news/local/throwback-thursday-pearls-and-pearl-buttons-drove-vanished-river-industry/article_815f1b41-8bed-5d82-b418-0eebe4d72a78.html

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