The Gold Rush of the Midwest

Statue of a clamber the river near the museum.

According to Terry Eagle, Assistant Director of the Discover History & Industry Center in Muscatine, Iowa, ”The Goldrush of the Midwest was Mother of Pearl.”

This Mother of Pearl was found in the clams and mussels along the Mississippi River in Muscatine and the discovery made Muscatine the Pearl Button Capital of the World!  The Discover History & Industry Center in Muscatine highlights this history in their fascinating museum.

This is a place I have longed to visit for sometime.  On a trip to Iowa City, I took the time to stop and and along with two other interested women, Terry provided us with an in depth tour!

The story goes back to Germany in the late 1800’s with John F. Boepple.  “He was a button maker in Germany and he made buttons from all types of material, but the Mother of Pearl was the great money maker.”

Terry explained that buttons were not only a useful item, but also ornamental.  “There was a high demand for using ocean shells for Mother of Pearl.”

These shells though were hard to come by and when John Boepple received two mussel shells from the Mississippi River he realized that these freshwater mollusks could provide him an expansive supply of Mother of Pearl that could start a button empire.

Knowing the habits and needs of mussels, he determined just where the Mississippi would break and have the slow moving currents where the mussels would thrive.  He chose Muscatine and in the 1890’s arrived in the area and set to work.  Previously the mussels were just considered a navigational problem.  “The rivers were choked with them,” Terry added.

It wasn’t long before Boepple started making buttons and others took notice.  More people ordered more buttons and the area that had previously relied on lumber, logging and farming had a new industry boom.  Once the industry got rolling, Terry said, “1.5 billion buttons were made yearly, this was the gold rush of Mother of Pearl. Nineteen states around Iowa shipped here. There was so much shell that Boepple started hiring clammers up and down the river, they would circle mussel beds, then move on.”

As expected, this would have an affect on the mussel and clam population and would eventually devastate the supply.  At this time though the industry exploded some locals made a living clamming, while others would simply supplement their income.  Sometimes, the clammer even found a pearl!

”When they found a pearl, they collected a handful then they could take them and sell them to pearl brokers. They were mostly misshapen and used for hat pins and cosmetic jewelry etc.”

At the museum, I was fascinated by the clamming camps and the whole lifestyle that surrounded this fought and nomadic life. Besides the clammers, there were blankers, finishers and more.

The Boepple’s had a great machine but he was not forward thinking and didn’t jump on the band wagon when electricity came into play. Another family however, an Irish family, by the name of Barry mechanized the equipment and sold them to families who set up their own shops.

Boepples lack of industrialization eventually caught up with him and his shop closed, however his knowledge later came in handy and he was hired to advise when they created a hatchery to try to reintroduce the mussel population.

There are many more stories that one blog can cover about this amazing museum and the use of what was once considered a navigational nightmare became a product that set Muscatine on the map.