Pearl of the Mississippi

Unexpected pleasures await those who explore the quiet corners. If you find yourself traveling along our waterways, be sure and stop in one of the many Army Corps of Engineer campgrounds. We have found them to be inexpensive, well equipped and well kept. Last Spring we tootled along the Mississippi and discovered Fairport Recreation Area/Wild Cat Den State Park. We had a lovely pull through spot just a few yards from the Mighty river. Wooden swings invited you to stop and watch the barges being herded down the river. Mussel shells littered the shoreline. This unexpected pleasure is located less than 10 miles from the river town of Muscatine, Iowa.

No visit to Muscatine, Iowa would be complete without a stop in the local museum dedicated to the history of the pearl button industry. Everywhere you look, you see the heritage of the men and women who made their livelihood along the Mississippi, River. Shell buttons had been something that only the very wealthy had on their clothing. With the development of the local mussel, everyone could afford shell buttons. The citizens of Muscatine were employed by several button factories.

During the summer months, families would camp along the river and fish for the mussels. It was said that they could make more money in a couple of months on the river than they could all year in the factory. One lady reminisced that they had a large tent with an old linoleum floor and oil stove. They loved the freedom (and money)and were always the last ones to return in the fall. The shell button industry went strong for over 75 years. Over fishing and the emergence of new plastic buttons sounded the death knell for the industry. The lady who took me through the museum related how the alleys behind her home were full of shells that had been drilled for buttons. There were many folks making buttons in their basements and garages. Entrepreneurs found uses for the leftover shell as aquarium gravel, fertilizer additive and chicken grit.

Towards the end of the pearl button boom, there were only 7 main companies still in operation. In 1946, it was decided to host a contest for the “Button Queen.” Ladies were selected to represent each company. Their pictures were sent to a young Ronald Reagan, who selected the winner. Did you know that Reagan came from Iowa?

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) lived for awhile in Muscatine. He worked for the local newspaper that was owned by his brother. He recounts his impressions of Muscatine in the book, Life on the Mississippi.

And I remember Muscatine—still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them. They used the broad smooth river as a canvas, and painted on it every imaginable dream of color, from the mottled daintinesses and delicacies of the opal, all the way up, through cumulative intensities, to blinding purple and crimson conflagrations which were enchanting to the eye, but sharply tried it at the same time. All the Upper Mississippi region has these extraordinary sunsets as a familiar spectacle. It is the true Sunset Land: I am sure no other country can show so good a right to the name. The sunrises are also said to be exceedingly fine. I do not know. —Mark Twain

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  1. Susan

    March 7, 2013 at 12:03

    Thank you for this great article! I had no idea that Iowa had a pearl button industry. The title and photo really caught my eye and sparked an interest in seeing it in person. Thank you!

  2. Anonymous

    March 7, 2013 at 12:03

    Thanks so much for the blog on Muscatine, Iowa. We have ” passed through” Iowa many times. Now I’m thinking more along the lines of trying to search out those bits of our history that makes this wonderful country of ours. Will most likely go to this museum. Looking for to seeing how you come up with a craft area in your rig. I would love to carve out an area for the many crafts I enjoy. How do you manage with the pets, especially the parrots? I leave my cockatoo with relatives because of the noise factor. Do you have some magic to keep them quiet when camped near people? Anyway thanks for this blog looking forward to the next one.

    • Anonymous

      March 20, 2013 at 12:03

      Traveling with pets is always a challenge and a compromise. The parrots are kept busy with toys and treats when we are parked. They can be chatty, but not too bad. It all depends on the species. I am still working on the crafting area. I think under the bed will be filled with my stuff. I have a card table and two sewing machines that will live in the car. We shall see.


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