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)
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.
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 outside a
button factory, 1919. Photograph courtesy U. S. Bureau of
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.