Harvesting the River
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Mussels of the Illinois River
a Mussel Harvester
Mussel Harvester, Pearl, Illinois
Mussels on crowfoot hooks along the bar
Photograph courtesy Marshall County Historical Society.
Zoom in on a Mussel Harvester
Many species of mussels or freshwater clams were abundant in the Illinois River at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was discovered they could be used for button making in the new ready-to-wear clothing industry.

Hundreds of local river-town residents became part of the mussel industry. They fished for mussels and cooked them out, using unique tools and techniques. They learned to cut button blanks and finish buttons at button factories along the river. A narrative by a well-known factory owner recounts the history and boom of this business in Meredosia.

The demand for pearl buttons and freshwater pearls was so great between 1900 and 1930 that the Illinois River, the Wabash, and other rivers were fished out. The mussel population is still in recovery from the depletion caused by overfishing and from the pollution added to the Illinois River during the twentieth century.

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