Harvesting the River
Harvest Transport History

Home > Harvesting > Freshwater Mussels > Tools> Cooking Out Shells

  'Cooking Out' the Shells

Musseler's Camp
Musseler's Camp Zoom in on Musseler's Camp
Mussels were killed by steaming them in a vat. The steamer consisted of a metal and wood box set over a fire. Mussels were put into the box, some water was added, and it was covered in burlap and allowed to steam for about twenty minutes.

The mussels were removed from the steamer with an 18-inch-wide shell fork Go to image of Shell Fork and cooled. Sorters pried open the shells with a knife, scooped the meat from the shells, searched for pearls, tossed aside the meat (which was discarded, used for pig feed, or saved as fish bait), and created mounds of shells according to size and color. Each 'saw shop,' Go to image of 'Saw Shop' as the plants were called, washed, sorted, and categorized the shells by use, color, size, and species. Women and children pitched in with this task. By the end of the summer, these camps developed an overwhelming odor.

The shells were stacked along the shore, where weekly runs of the shell factory buyers picked them up in trucks. The shell collector used a shell fork to scoop fifteen to twenty pounds of shells at a time into a tin tub that held 100 pounds of shell. Musselers were paid by the ton. Musselers or the collectors hauled the empty shells to a factory or shop that made button blanks, or in many cases finished buttons. As the industry boomed, small factories Go to image of the Elk Pearl Button Factory opened up near large mussel beds. The small factories performed the next steps in the button-making process, the cutting of button blanks.

Images Videos Audio clips

   Plank Roads
      Northern Cross
   The River
(+)Click to Open Menu

State of Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources Illinois State MuseumSearch