My Great Grandfather: The Pearl hunter

by LeRoy P. Miller
(Birnnamwood, WI)

My Great Grandfather knew Mr. Boppel from Muscatine and was involved in the development of the Mussel shell industry on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. I remember the stories he told me about his adventures when I was a child.

Paul Harder begin clamming in 1900 in Red Wing, Minnesota. He was the third person from the Red Wing area to become involved in this activity and the first to begin clamming on Lake Pepin south of Red Wing. Over the years he found many pearls and sold tons of shells that went to the button factory at Muscatine. He also bought shells, operated a small button making factory and purchased pearls from many people over many years.

I was not aware of the high interest and high prices paid for fresh water pearls during this time period. He likened it to the gold rush. He sold seed pearls to buyers that came from Japan. He thought they used them as health remedies or sexual stimulants or to use in trying to culture pearls. My great grandfather sold some of the pearls he found for between $100 to over $1000 each. I think his best sale was a pearl he found when clamming on the Vermillion River. He sold it to Cecil B. de Mille, who collected fresh water pearls (I think it sold for several thousand dollars). He called it the "World Wonder Pearl". It looked like a perfect cameo of a lady; it weighed 143 grains and was the size of a small walnut. He took pictures and wrote a book on the history of fresh water clamming in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin that with pictures would be about 200 pages. I have a copy of a letter he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt when FDR was President asking her for help to get the book published. I don't know if he ever received a reply but it was never published. I have his handwritten manuscript plus a typed copy that he gave to my mother and she gave to me. I'll probably investigate if there's interest in it being published as it's a piece of history that most people are not aware. If you have similar interests I'd enjoy hearing from you.

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