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  Commercial Mussel Harvest
The Illinois [River] reached its maximum shell production during the season of 1909, when thousands of tons of good button shells were gathered and put in piles along the shore to await shipment. This river has been the most productive stream per mile of any in the country . . . two or three years ago more than 2,600 boats were engaged in the mussel fishery between Peru and Grafton. (Ernest Danglade 1914)

Freshwater mussel fishing was commercially important to the Illinois River Valley. Beginning in 1891, mussels were harvested to manufacture shell buttons for clothing. As the industry grew, many towns along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers had button factories or buying stations where mussel harvesters sold their shells.

The shell-button industry thrived until the 1940s, when plastic replaced shell as the preferred raw material for buttons. In the early days, nobody attempted to manage or control the mussel harvest, and many of the mussel beds were severely depleted or destroyed.
Button
Cutters on a Pile of Shells
Button Cutters on a Pile of Shells outside a button factory, 1919.
Photograph courtesy U. S. Bureau of Fisheries
Zoom in on Button
Cutters on a Pile of Shells

Mussel harvesting resumed in the 1960s to provide the shell implant or "nucleus" for producing cultured pearls. Commercial harvesting continues in the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries but is currently prohibited in the Illinois River. Over seven-million pounds of mussels, valued at over six-million dollars, were harvested in 1990. Several states in the Midwest are developing new, uniform harvest regulations to better manage this important natural resource.

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