We have been wading in the waters of our local creeks, casting our lines in the mighty Cumber- land River and even doing a little deep-sea fishing. But this week we turn to the muddy bottom of the river.
And this time it is not a fish we are seeking!
We are looking for freshwater mussels, also known as freshwater clams.
There was a time when the Cumberland River was a popular place to fish for freshwater mussels, and to open them up to occasionally find a beautiful pearl!
Yes, the same ocean-dwelling shelled mollusk that makes the valuable and highly sought pearl has a cousin that lives in the freshwater streams of America. And it also produces a pearl!
If we go back several hundred years, the Native Americans who lived here fished and gathered freshwater mussels for supper. We know this from the large piles of their shells found at Indian village sites.
They also treasured the natural pearls found in the mussels and used them for jewelry and decoration.
The white man didn’t see the attraction of the freshwater mussel as a food source as much as the Cherokee, Shawnee and Creek Indians that lived here. But he did realize that a perfectly shaped round pearl was valuable, no matter where it came from.
There was a problem however.
Only one in a hundred freshwater mussels has a pearl, and only one in a thousand of those is considered worthy of being made into jewelry!
It wasn’t until the 1850s that Americans began to seriously seek out the freshwater mussel and search for pearls. But they were ardent about their search and fishermen would dive into the waters of large streams and rivers and feel about the bottom for the small-shelled bivalve.
Some rivers have large beds of mussels!
A large freshwater pearl, perfectly round, could sell for thousands of dollars — making a good profit for a little time spent in the cold muddy water. In 1857 Princess Eugenie of France purchased an American freshwater pearl, weighing 93 grams, for $2,500. Others were known to sell for as much as $65,000!
Then in the 1890s a new use of the freshwater mussel was found. The shell itself could be used for making buttons! The thick shells and their shiny interiors could be cut into “pearl buttons.”
That brings us to recognize Tennessee’s “Pearl King” — a fellow who lived just up the river from us in Carthage!
Herman Myer was a native of Carthage and he saw the potential for the shell and pearl industry. He even opened up an office in New York City, where he bought and sold freshwater pearls.
An ad in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine from 1897 declared, “PEARLS Buying pearls of first hands (divers), I cheaply obtain rare forms, colors, and lustres never reaching jewelers, and sell them in unique made-to-order designs to private customers of taste and refinement. For the same, your jeweler, who paid three profits, sells common stones and commonplace designs. Write NOW for Christmas. HERMAN MYER, CARTHAGE, TENN.”
By the 1920s, there were over 300 American mussel shell dealers. The pearl button industry was worth millions of dollars every year!
Then someone invented plastic.
Plastic buttons took the place of the pretty shiny mussel shell button and by 1950 there were only six dealers in natural mussel shells in America.
In recent years, Japanese merchants have found that the shells of the American mussel make good seed to create a cultured pearl. A freshwater mussel is planted with a small round bit of natural shell and the mussel makes a pearl around it. It results in a beautiful pearl that is not technically called a natural pearl, yet is very valuable.
There are still people who ply the waters of the Cumberland River seeking freshwater mussels. You will occasionally see their boats with racks of nets pass through town. But it is not the industry it once was and the “Pearl King” who once lived down the road from us is just a memory.