Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905
(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse. He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open. “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.” Shells were sent off to button factories.)

rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard
(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911. Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off. The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes. Photo by Lloyd Ballard. Beloit College Archives.)

At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  They were large towns, too.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm
(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois. St. Louis Community College.)

Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati.  When the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells
(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907. For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash. When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)

Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York.  A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell
Created by Robert Ervin Coker, 1921, courtesy of University of Washington, accessed Wikipedia.

leavenworth button works
(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed twenty-four families — most of the population of the town. This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall. Long chutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below. Discarded shells were burned to produce lime. “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood. Image courtesy of Crawford County Historical & Genealogical Society.)

button factory at st. mary's west virginia
(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910. The man on the far left, second row, in the black apron is Andrew Jackson Wigner, the great-grandfather of Trisha Johns who submitted the photo, accessed https://www.wvgenweb.org/pleasants/workmen.htm)

Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that. there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police. In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks‘ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister
Image courtesy of Google Books.

Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Politics of Pollution in “The Region”

The Times (Munster), August 13, 1970, accessed Newspapers.com.

* See Part I to learn about the origins of Federated Metals’ Indiana plant and community protest to its pollutants.

Carl Weigand, acting chief of air pollution control, reported in 1969 that Federated Metals’s Hammond-Whiting smelting plant “has a hell of [a] stink problem” (Munster Times). He worked untiringly to combat air pollution generated by “The Region‘s” industries. Weigand’s description of his professional obstacles mirrored the conflicting financial and environmental interests enmeshed in the plant: “Sometimes all a company has to do is call up a councilman or city hall to mention, ‘we could move this operation'” and pollution policies would go unenforced. “But,” Weigand countered, “‘I’m a stubborn German.'”

That year, the Munster Times noted that the Calumet Region was 11th in air pollution in the U.S. When including the Chicago area, it was the second or third highest. Nationally, Americans turned their attention to the impact of industry on the environment, especially following the Santa Barbara oil spill. In 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson created the first Earth Day, and throughout Indiana Hoosiers acted to raise awareness about the imminent pollution crisis. In addition to general clean up campaigns, panel discussions, and seminars, students built monuments made of trash and participated in marches. The constituent support for Earth Day encouraged Congress to enact a swell of landmark environmental legislation, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, and the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Christy Miller, a student at Northwestern High School in Kokomo, stands among trash picked up around the school and asks other students to sign a petition against pollution, Kokomo Tribune, April 23, 1970, accessed newspapers.com.

In this framework, Federated Metals found itself on the periphery of a heated public debate about the fate of Lake George in the late 1970s. The Times reported in 1979 that silt containing toxic metals, like arsenic and mercury, was found at the bottom of the “‘decaying lake,'” potentially making fish dangerous to eat. This complicated Calumet College‘s proposal to deepen the lake, and resulted in a “turbulent hearing involving debates over private vs. public rights, hazardous waste and legislative intent.” The college owned the title to the lake, except for the section belonging to Federated Metals. College president Rev. James F. McCabe petitioned to drain the lake and remove sand, which would then be sold, generating approximately $1.5 million for the struggling school.

Rev. McCabe contended “If you force us to preserve a decaying lake, it will be an infringement on the rights of private ownership.” But the U.S. Corps of Engineers advised against dredging because it could stir up pollutants. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources, however, thought the petition should be approved, with conditions, because “The proposed project would increase the recreational potential and desirability of the lake, and would preserve the existing wildlife habitat.”

In 1981, “emotional tension” arose when senators debated a bill allowing Calumet College to sandmine Lake George, despite the city having an ordinance against sand-mining. The Times reported on a skirmish on the Senate floor between bill sponsor Senator Ralph Potesta (R) and opponent Senator Frank Mrvan (D). The legislators argued over ownership of the lake, control of which would be taken from the DNR with passage of the bill. Senator Mrvan opposed this, as well as the potential for property damage caused by sand-mining. He was accompanied by women from the Robertsdale neighborhood, who protested “the most lobbyed [sic] bill to be considered this session” in the Senate chambers. State policemen manned the chambers after one woman reportedly threatened to shoot Senator Potesta if the bill passed. When it did, the Times noted “tiny pieces of a printed copy of the bill flurried to the floor of the Senate from where the women were seated. One began to cry.” The project was expected to generate $38 million ($2-$3 million allocated to the college) and some of the sand would be used to fill the Cline Avenue extension. The debate about dredging the lake was for naught. Calumet College scrapped the idea in 1989, stating “Calumet College has no interest—long-term—in being in the lake business, the park business, the sand business, the real estate business or any related business” (Times).

Senator Mrvan had earlier opposed Federated Metal’s 1977 expansion, which involved building a “sludge treatment plant designed to extract nickel compounds used for nickel-plating steel.” He exclaimed, in response to the City Council’s approval of municipal-rate bonding for the plant, “‘I don’t believe this. Here are nine councilmen just coming in and we’re expected to pass this thing in one night when we’ve never seen it before.'” Mrvan also took issue with the unannounced caucuses that took place prior to the vote and influenced councilmen.

Although it had closed its Indiana plant in 1983, Federated Metals found itself in hot water in 1985, when it had to pay civil penalties to the Indiana Environmental Management Special Fund for permit violations. The Times stated that the company “failed to provide groundwater monitoring equipment on its property where hazardous waste was treated and stored.” In December of that year, HBR Partners, Inc. purchased the former plant.

“Appeal Goes Out to Study Dumps, The Times (Munster), February 21, 1988, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Federated’s troubles deepened in 1986, when Councilman Gerald Bobos requested an investigation into possible contamination of Lake George by dump sites owned by Federated and the former Amoco facility. Preliminary studies conducted in 1984 indicated that “‘at one time there were 50,000 cubic yards of persistent toxic substances—picking liquors, degreasers and fine heavy metal powders—on the site that could be filtered into the lake'” (Times, March 1986). The study also noted that a child sustained third-degree burns while playing at the dump in 1978.

“Innuendos” and “allegations” is how Councilman Edward Repay described Bobos’s presentation of the surveys, which he used to convince the council of the need for an official investigation. Repay, who sponsored the lake dredging, contended that “we’ve got studies from last year from the Robertsdale Foundation that show the sand is clean. I’ll go along with those studies.” Ultimately, Repay voted to investigate the dump sites, but not before accusing opponents of the dredging as guilty of “‘rotten, no-good, uncitizenlike behavior'” for presenting the studies.

Feeling the need to explain himself, Repay wrote to the Munster Times that his anger towards a Hammond councilman, presumably Bobos, was deserved. Repay leveled that his ire was not because the councilman and United Citizens Association (UCA) brought up the alleged toxic state of the Federated site, but “that they waited to use it as a ‘trump card’ against possible improvements to George Lake.” (Bobos had earlier mentioned that he requested the 1984 studies months prior, but the state board’s delay meant he was unable to use them in the decision to issue a dredging permit). Repay maintained “This is ‘one-upsmanship,’ not statesmanship or an act of a responsible civic organization.” Repay agreed that action should have been taken when the child was exposed in 1978, but the “inaction of a councilman and the leaders of the UCA is reprehensible and deserving of angry criticism.”

The Times (Munster), April 30, 1991, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ultimately, the EPA  planned to investigate, which site inspection official Harry Atkinson considered crucial because there were over 800 alleged dump sites in the state, but Lake County has “‘tons’ of such alleged sites.” The Times reported that federal inspectors tried to examine the former site of Federated Metals in 1985, but the property owners denied access.

In 1990, the U.S. Justice Department sued Federated Metals, Inland Steel, and Bethlehem Steel, jewels in The Region’s industrial crown. According to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, the Justice Department sued for violation of pollution laws, which threatened Lake Michigan by “‘creating fish too contaminated to eat, forcing frequent beach closings, harming wildlife living along the shore, and depositing toxins in lake bottom sediment.'” The Northwest Indiana Times reported that at the time Indiana was one of seven U.S. states without air pollution control laws and relied on federal regulations that only limited small amount of emissions. Increased enforcement of pollution laws through heavy fines, a Justice Department official contended, “would teach industrial polluters that befouling the air and waterways can cost more than spending to control hazardous wastes.” The director of the Grand Cal Task Force, a citizens environmental group, approved of the “aggressive plan,” stating “In the past, smoke has meant jobs. . . . People were afraid to put pressure on the companies. Now there aren’t as many jobs and pollution is just as bad.”

The Tribune (Seymour), October 17, 1990, accessed Newspapers.com.

The following year, Federated Metals and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) came to an agreement to make the site safer. The Munster Times reported that within a year the smelting company would place a “sophisticated clay cap” over nineteen acres of contaminated slag in Lake George and install monitoring wells. Federated’s residual heavy metals had been linked with “mental retardation in children and high blood pressure in adults.” Preventing these health effects, an IDEM official said, “has been a thorn in our side for quite a long period of time.”

The Times credited citizens living in the Robertsdale neighborhood for the remediation. The paper stated that the group had worked for years to “get the site cleaned up and fenced off from unsuspecting children who enjoyed riding their bikes on the lead, zinc and copper dust piles because they were soft to land in.” Kids also scavenged for metal to sell at the former site. By 1991, Federated Metals, a subsidiary of Asarco Inc., installed a security guard and fence to prevent this from reoccurring.

Federated Metals
The Times (Munster), November 11, 2003, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

But hazards posed by the former Federated Metals site endured into 21st century. The Times reported in 2003 that the “hazardous waste dump” had “never been closed or capped, allowing the release of toxins into the air and the contamination of water that runs into the lake [George].” That year, environmental consulting and remediation company ENACT began a “long-awaited cleanup” of the former Federated site.

To David Dabertin, a now retired EPA official and Hammond resident, history repeated itself in 2017. IDEM renewed Whiting Metals’s permit (which operates at the former Federated site), despite the EPA investigating off-site soil contamination in residential areas. This area included the St. Adalbert Catholic Church, which complained in 1939 that Federated’s noxious fumes kept students home. According to the Northwest Indiana Times, IDEM renewed the permit without a public hearing or meeting. Dabertin, one of the local children that had ridden his bike through the piles of metal dust, railed that issuing the permit in

an area where lead may be an issue without obtaining the test results is foolish and bordering on the negligent . . . The refusal to hold a public hearing is plain cowardice. And IDEM’s attempt to address my concerns about the prior ownership of the facility by relying on the unintelligible correspondence of its prior director is so nonresponsive it is insulting.

In April 2018, Dabertin introduced himself to Governor Eric Holcomb near the former Federated site and calmly informed him, “You are telling these people there is lead in their backyard, but [the state environmental agency] just permitted that facility to produce lead . . . That’s a disconnect.” Former U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt quietly accompanied Governor Holcomb on his visit to the EPA Superfund site and the following day authorized $1.7 million to remove contaminated soil. According to the Northwest Indiana Times, soil sampling detected the presence of lead above the EPA’s designated level. Removal of contaminated soil was slated to start the following week, beginning with properties inhabited by “sensitive populations,” such as pregnant women and children under the age of seven. But remediation costs at $50,000 per property, and the bankruptcy of Federated Metals, left no “responsible party” to replace the homeowner’s soil. It remains to be seen who will bear the financial burden of restoring the yards.

Will these efforts satisfy the community’s concerns about Federated Metal’s impact on their health? Or will they fall short, like Federated’s attempt to quell citizen protest in 1939 by replacing a problematic smokestack? That history is yet to be written.