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.


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Pride and Pollutants: Federated Metals

On April 19, 2018, over a chain link fence Hammond resident and former EPA attorney David Dabertin voiced his concerns about the former site of Federated Metals to Governor Eric Holcomb. East Chicago environmental activist Thomas Frank told Mother Jones weeks after the visit “’We’d known for quite some time that there was some contamination there,’” but the Indiana Department of Environmental Management allowed plants at the site to keep polluting. For decades, industry was the region’s bread and butter and often the corporation’s and community’s financial well-being was prioritized over health or environmental concerns. Frank noted that older generations viewed the plants with “a sense of pride as it provided jobs and stability” and do not “‘want to look at what they’re so proud of and see that it’s harming them.'”

The EPA’s 2018 investigation of Hammond’s soil lead levels, a response to the “national criticism of its slow reaction to polluted water in Flint, Mich., and lead-contaminated housing in East Chicago,” (Chicago Tribune) inspired us to take a look at Federated Metal’s origins. In 1937, the Chicago-based company announced it would establish a plant in the Whiting-Hammond area. By 1939, hundreds of workers produced non-ferrous metals used in automobile, housing, and oil drilling industries. Almost immediately after production began, the community voiced complaints about the effects on their health.

In the spring, a citizens committee decried the fumes and smoke being expelled by the new smelting and refining plant—so noxious that students at St. Adalbert Catholic parochial school had to miss class due to illness—and pressed city officials to intervene. That year, resident Frank Rydzewski wrote to the Munster Times that Federated Metals foisted upon the Hammond community a “generous sample of sickening odors which emit from its midget—partially concealed smoke stacks and which have already showed its ill-effects on pupils of a school situated not a block distant.”

Rydzewski’s next sentiment encompassed the conflicting priorities related to Federated Metals from the 1930s until its closing in 1983: “Certainly, the value of health impairment to residents in the vicinity far surpasses any questionable tax-able asset this company can create.” Although he bemoaned the fumes plaguing the city’s residents, he also noted that the plant could “boast of its colored personnel; its predominating out-of-state and outside employe[e]s; its labor policies.” Since the 1930s, Federated Metals has served as both the bane and pride of Hammond and Whiting residents. The plant experienced labor strikes, symbolized livelihood and industrial progress, helped the Allies win World War II, and was the site of accidental loss of life.

“Hammond Plant Makes Various Metal Alloys,” The Times (Munster), June 13, 1949, accessed Newspapers.com.

In April, the Munster Times reported that hundreds of residents in the area “revolted” against the plant’s operations at the city council meeting. They charged that “harmful gas discharges from the plant damaged roofs of residences, caused coughing and sneezing that punctuated school studies and prayers in the Whiting church and school and made it virtually impossible to open doors or windows of homes in the neighborhood.”

The paper noted that Mrs. Feliz Niziolkeiwicz wept as she addressed plant manager Max Robbins. She told him “You can live in my home for free rent if you think you can stand the smoke nuisance. The home I built for $10,000 is almost wasted because of the acid from the plant.” Her concerns were shared by Hammond Mayor Frank R. Martin, the city council, the city board of public works and safety, and the health department, whose secretary ordered Federated Metals one month prior to “abate the nuisance” within sixty days. In October, the company was tried in a Hammond city court hearing and found not guilty of criminal liability for the fumes, despite city health inspector Robert Prior testifying that Federated Metals “continued to operate and discharge gasses on the Whiting-Robertsdale community after repeated warnings to abate the alleged nuisance.”

By November, Federated Metals had constructed a $50,000 smoke stack much taller than the previous, offending one, so as to diffuse smoke farther above the Robertsdale neighborhood. In March 1940, Prior stated that citizen protests had ceased with the improvement. Following this remediation, the Munster Times published a smattering of articles throughout the 1940s about health complaints related to plant output. In October 1941, the Times published a short, but eyebrow-raising article regarding allegations that Federated Metals tried to pay Whiting residents in the area as a settlement for property damaged by fumes. Councilman Stanley Shebish shouted “When the people of this community suffer bad health and many can’t go to sleep at night because of this smoke and particles of waste, it is time to stop an underhanded thing like this!” Health officials maintained that the sulphur dioxide fumes were “not a menace to health,” but may be “detrimental to flowers and shrubs.” Whiting’s St. Adalbert’s Church filed a similar complaint about the health of students, teachers, and parishioners in 1944.

Cpl. Glen Kirkman transporting war material from Federated Metals Whiting location on Indianapolis Blvd. to the company’s Chicago headquarters, The Times (Munster), June 19, 1945, accessed Newspapers.com.

While citizens lamented pollutants, the plant churned out “vital war materials” for World War II operations. (The Air Force also awarded the company contracts in the 1950s.) In accordance with the national post-war trend, 1946 ushered in labor strikes at the Hammond-Whiting plant. The Times reported that in January CIO United Steelworkers of America closed down the “Calumet Region’s steel and metal plants,” like Inland Steel Co., Pullman-Stan. Car & Mfg. Co., and Federated Metals. On February 17, Federated Metals agreed to increase the wages of its 350 employees to $32 per month. Labor strikes, such as that which “deprived workers of a living and dampened Calumet Region business,” took place at Federated Metals until at least 1978. This last strike lasted nearly five months and required the service of a federal mediator.

On January 5, 1949, one of the grimmest events in the plant’s history took place at the receiving department. While unloading a shipment from National Lead Co., Federated workers were suddenly overcome by arsenic seeping from rain-sodden drums. The gas, which can also cause paralysis, memory loss, and kidney damage, took the lives of four men and hospitalized eleven. The Times noted that “only the caprice of weather saved scores of Hammond and Whiting residents” from dying while the open freight cars transported the drums from Granite City, Illinois to the Federated Metals plant. The cities’ residents narrowly avoided catastrophe, since rain causes metal dross to generate deadly arsine gas.

Drums at Federated Metals’s Whiting-Hammond plant, The Times (Munster), January 9, 1949, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Richard H. Callahan, East Chicago deputy coroner, probed the deaths and placed the blame primarily on the state board of health. He lamented “‘It is inconceivable that the chemists in the state board did not know that dross used by Federated Metals would poison workmen with arsine. Federated Metals was in the possession of a dangerous toy.” He noted that safeguards against arsenic poisoning had existed for thirty years, ranging from gas masks to the use of caged birds, who fell ill at lower concentrations of gas than humans. The Times noted that Dr. Callahan’s investigation was expected to “foster national and international safeguards against arsine poisoning.”

Deputy Coroner Dr. Richard H. Callahan, The Times (Munster), January 20, 1949, accessed Newspapers.com.

A.J. Kott wrote in the paper that Federated workers’ lives could have been saved had British Anti-Lewisite (BAL) been on hand, “a miracle drug, discovered during World War I in University of Chicago laboratories.” Instead, the drug had to be rushed to St. Catherine Hospital to treat affected workers. While Dr. Callahan identified the state board as the responsible party, questions regarding Federated’s culpability lingered, such as if they violated the state act requiring employees wear gas masks and if they should have had BAL on hand. Following the accident, the company promised to strengthen safety procedures, like employing gas detecting devices when material arrived.

Nearly twenty years later, Federated Metals found itself in the cross-hairs of the environmental movement, which had produced the first Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency. Learn about the U.S. Justice Department’s suit against Federated and the politics of pollution in Part II.

Stuck in the Poorhouse: The Complexity of Poverty

Steuben County Asylum
Steuben County Asylum (author’s photograph).

The Steuben County Asylum near I-69 in northeastern Indiana represents two contrasting ideals of poverty care. On the one hand, this imposing building on the rural landscape embodied the modern ideal of an end to poverty through scientific principles. In spite of the U.S. industrial economy of the later 19th century, marked by frequent panics and recessions, a new poor care system held out the hope that all indigent persons could be retrained and readied to work in the modern industrial world.  The new system would provide a safety net supporting those through the hard years and would help impoverished people develop improved habits in a healthy and orderly atmosphere. On the other hand, this building symbolized failure and loss of place in the community. To be a resident of this facility required separation from society and often induced a lifelong stigma of shame.

These institutions represented both a severe solution meant to frighten the “lazy” into working harder and a belief in a safety net to support those living on the margins. [1] This was especially important in an era when layoffs were not supplemented by benefits like workers compensation. Across rural America, there was fear associated with the various names for asylums: almshouses, county farms and infirmaries, poor farms, county homes, workhouses, and “the pogey.”

The Indianapolis Journal, October 19, 1888, accessed Newspapers.com.

Traditional poor relief (after private charities and local churches were exhausted) fell to local government. This was called “outdoor relief” because the poor or destitute were helped where they lived. To contain costs, the sheriff might “warn out” (or throw out) potential pauper residents to discourage poor people from staying there. Officials often employed this method to keep immigrants, especially the Irish, from settling in their town.

If the family could not care for an indigent resident, a landowner might take that person in on the lowest bid for room and board.  By the 1820s, this informal arrangement was rapidly supplanted by an increasingly standardized system recognizing one place as a county poorhouse. The professionalization of these institutions focused on isolating each class of patient from what social reformers thought was the cause of their ailments or bad habits.  The system was intended to instill a culture of order on the disorder of their lives.  The enforced order would help cure the issues they faced. However, most residents used the farm only for periodic stays during times of unemployment and sickness.

In line with the rest of the nation, Indiana initiated its statewide system of county poor asylums.[2] In 1821, the state legislature approved Indiana’s first poorhouse in Knox County.  Following the national standards for poorhouse improvements, promoted in prescriptive literature, many counties built what were called “model homes” by the later nineteenth century.  These were modern buildings constructed to meet the current standards of that time. These asylums even provided libraries for residents to use in preparation for a changed life outside the asylum.[3]

County Poor Farm, Huntington, Indiana, courtesy of the Huntington City-Township Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

Many rural almshouses were working farms, providing food for residents and a profit to the county government.  The Democrat newspaper of Huntington County praised its superintendent in 1871 for keeping the farm as an “almost self-sustaining . . . charitable institution.” Efficiency and thrift were valued far higher than any other management trait.[4]  These practices led to abuses of a very vulnerable group in society. To create a more orderly life for their residents, almshouses increased the level of isolation and separation in the homes.  This policy is reflected in the houses’ physical form as it changed during the 19th century.

The Democrat provided a brief glimpse into the Huntington County almshouse during February of 1871.  The paper listed 18 assorted inmates, but ten or twelve more typically resided there during the year.  Most residents were temporally admitted during sicknesses and job slowdowns.  Most poorhouses apparently hosted a few long-term residents and sometimes children were born there too.  The farm around the almshouse provided work for residents capable of manual labor.  One resident at the Huntington Almshouse was the full-time farm hand.  Others worked on the farm or in the almshouse kitchen.[5]

Between 1830 and 1900, four stages in almshouse design demonstrated a stronger commitment to scientific poor care.  The first stage involved converting a portion of a private house to accommodate paupers placed in the home owner’s care. The owners made no effort to separate the residents, and they were assigned farm work, as able, to help earn their keep.  The famous 1872 poem by Will Carleton “Over the Hill to the Poor House” was inspired by his experience at just such a home in Hillsdale, Michigan. The lack of family support, as well as old age temporarily landed elderly mothers in the poor house.[6]

In the second stage, the county purchased a farm to use for the care of the poor.  Other buildings might be constructed for dorm facilities for the majority of the residents.

The next stage was the first real attempt at building a custom facility for poor care.  The Steuben County Asylum, built in 1885, appears to match this third stage.  The strong center area indicates there was a public entrance with rooms for the County Superintendent of the Poor. There is room enough to separate men from women and to create the ordered environment that could be both helpful and oppressive.

Poorhouse in Adams County Indiana, courtesy of http://www.poorhousestory.com.

The fourth stage is the full scale, scientifically approved poor house.  As can be seen in the illustration above this facility is a massive element in the landscape.  The very obvious three-part construction is easy to recognize.  Some of you will have seen buildings like this around rural Indiana. They seem out-of-place among local farms.  They may be marked by a road name such as Asylum Road or County Farm Road.  The well-used 1911 textbook, The Almshouse Construction, and Management (written in Indiana) noted that asylums must be near the center of the region they serve, allow for complete segregation of the sexes, provide an abundance of sunlight and fresh air, and be designed for convenient access for administrators to the whole house. [7]

They are designed to house men and women in completely separate wings with public space in a center section.  Usually, the County Superintendent of the Poor lived in the upstairs of the center section.  Larger homes had infirmaries for men and for women.  This feature became more common in the early 20th century as the almshouse became more of an old age home rather than a place of refuge from destitution.

Jefferson County Poor Farm, circa 1915, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

When I first started researching this theme I interviewed staff at the Steuben County Asylum, which had been completely converted to a senior rest home.  The problem was that many elderly residents refused to consider living there out of the memory of what that building had once meant.[8]  Even in the 1980s, seniors related residency in the poorhouse with a loss of freedom and personal dignity.  The company managing the care facility failed to grasp the public memory of the County Asylum on that generation.  Ironically, the current generation of seniors (Baby Boomers) might laugh at residing in a former poorhouse perhaps as a way of poking fun at their elders’ fears.

County poorhouses should remain a visual reminder of the hazards inherent in reform efforts.  Even with good intentions, abuses of vulnerable people occurred.  The poorhouse had little to regulate it except mixed national ideals and local attitudes.  Torn between purposes of punishment and rescue, poorhouses failed to cure poverty.  The complexity of poverty caused reformers and politicians endless pains.  We might gain some comfort that citizens and politicians before us found poverty as difficult to manage as we do now.

 

[1] David Wagner, The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution, (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., 2005), 19.

[2] Kayla Hassett, “The County Home in Indiana: A Forgotten Response to Poverty and Disability,” (Masters Thesis, Ball State University, May 2013), 13.

[3] See report by Henry N. Sanborn, “Institution, Libraries: The Outlook in Indiana” Forty-Third Annual Meeting Conference of Charities and Correction. (Indianapolis, IN 1916), 367-371.

[4] “The County Alms-House Its General Condition-The Number and Character of its Inmates,” The Democrat, (Huntington, Indiana), February 2, 1871, accessed www.poorhousestory.com.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Jerome A. Fallon, The Will Carleton Poorhouse: A Memorial to a Man, a Dwelling, and a Poem, (Hillsdale: Hillsdale Historical Society, 1989), 22-23.

[7] Alexander Johnson, The Almshouse Construction and Management (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1911), 8.

[8] Staff Steuben County Asylum interview by author, Fall 1994.

 

Further Reading

  1. Hassett, Kayla. “The County Home in Indiana: A Forgotten Response to Poverty and Disability.” Masters Thesis, Ball State University, May 2013.
  2. Katz, Michael B. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986.
  3. Thomas D. Mackie, “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse: A Glimpse at the County Farms of Southern Michigan, 1850s-1920s.” PAST, 21 (1998).
  4. Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. (Revised Ed) Boston: Backbay Books, 1990.
  5. Wagner, David, The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Inc.,2005.
  6. A private research web page titled Poorhouse Story provides images, primary sources, and readings for poorhouses and related agencies around the United States. They can be accessed at http://www.poorhousestory.com.

Reeling in the Legend: A Quick Dive into the Creek Chub Bait Company

The Wiggler. The Pikie. The Darter. The Injured Minnow. These are just a few of the popular lures crafted by the Creek Chub Bait Company during the twentieth century. Established in Garrett, DeKalb County, Indiana in 1916, the Creek Chub Bait Company became one of the country’s leading manufacturers of artificial fishing lures.

Creek Chub Wiggler. Courtesy Fin & Flame Vintage Fishing Tackle.
#2009 Creek Chub Darter in Greenback. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 73.

Each lure was a work of art, featuring the finest craftsmanship and attention to detail. From the company’s onset, owners Henry Dills, Carl Heinzerling, and George Schulthess placed an emphasis on quality for their products. Dills wanted the lures to be attractive to fishermen and fish alike, and worked alongside others within the company to ensure that they had a lifelike appearance and motion to help attract fish.

Creek Chub’s famous #700 Pikie, first introduced in 1920. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 65.

As early as December 1915, before the company officially began producing lures, Dills filed an application to patent new improvements in fish baits by adding a metal lip, or mouthpiece, attached to the front of the lure. According to the patent, the addition would help produce ripples, throw spray, wriggle, and dive similar to the way a minnow would, thereby attracting fish. The patent (1,352,054) was approved September 7, 1920.

Dills’ 1915 patent application featuring the addition of a metal lip to fishing lures. Courtesy United States Patent Office via Google Patents.

Creek Chub’s Wiggler, introduced in 1916, was among the first to feature the metal lip. According to Dr. Harold E. Smith in his Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, the company’s 1922 catalog advertised the Wiggler as “‘three baits in one.’ With the lip in the standard position, it was a diving, wiggling bait. In the reversed position, it became a water-splashing surface lure. Take the lip off and it was a darting surface lure.” Dixie Carroll also described the added movement to the lure in “Fishing, Tackle and Kits” in 1919, noting: “A small metal plate in the mouth of the chub gives a fine bunch of wiggles and wobbles and by moving the plate and reversing it you have a surface splatter lure . . .”

Dills’ 1918 patent application for the addition of imitation scales to improve the appearance of artificial lures. Courtesy United States Patent Office via Google Patents.

In July 1918, Dills filed another patent application to improve the lures by adding a scale-like appearance on their surface that would imitate a natural minnow. According to the patent (Patent 1,323,458), the lures would feature “a cigar-shaped wooden body, to which various coatings of coloring material are applied.” Employees used a non-lustrous color for the background body of the lure and then proceeded to wrap a cloth netting around it and spray a lustrous coloring material through the netting to form the scale-like pattern.

The scale finish evolved over time and helped revolutionize the industry by resembling natural food for fish. Advertisements in popular publications like Outing praised the lures, noting: “Accurately represents a minnow down to the silvery scales. Wonderful lifelike movements. Convertible.” Fishermen from around the country agreed, often writing to the company to boast of the record-size fish they caught using these lures.

Image: Dr. Harold E. Smith’s Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 279. In 1932, George Perry caught the world record largemouth bass in Lake Montgomery, Georgia using Creek Chub’s Perch Scale Wigglefish. The record stood for over seventy-five years. On July 2, 2009, Manabu Kurita caught a largemouth bass in Lake Biwa (Japan) tying Perry’s record of 22 lbs. 4 oz. According to articles in the Indianapolis Star in 2014, the International Game Fish Association took six months to verify the record. It became official on January 8, 2010.
Hunter Trader Trapper, June 1922, page 123. Courtesy Google Books.
Zoomed in letter from George McWilliams submitted to Hunter Trader Trapper, June 1922, page 123.

By the time a Creek Chub lure was completed and ready to ship to a customer, it often featured as many as fourteen or fifteen coats of primer, paint, and lacquer. Even the wood used early on for the bodies – white cedar – was of the highest quality. Over time, the designs and range of colors expanded greatly. The company also made specialty colors and custom orders upon request. In 1936, the Garrett Clipper noted that the patents for the natural scale finish and the mouthpiece were among the most important patents ever issued in the tackle industry.

Employees apply a scale finish to the lure bodies by spray painting through netting. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith,  Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 27.

From its earliest years, Creek Chub featured a largely female workforce. Some attributed this to the delicate nature of the lures and the work they entailed, which they believed women were better suited to perform. Dr. Harold E. Smith writes that “women were selected preferentially over men because management felt they were . . . ‘endowed with a better appreciation of color and detail.’”

Wanted ads in the Garrett Clipper frequently promoted jobs for girls and young ladies at the company, and articles often referenced the “girls” employed in the finishing departments, and sanding and dipping rooms.

Painting eyes on Creek Chub lures. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 28.

By the 1920s, Creek Chub was shipping its lures all over the United States and Europe. Between January and July 1925, the Garrett Clipper published several pieces on international sales. For example, on March 19, 1925, it reported that Creek Chub had recently received orders for 180 dozen bait from Stockholm, Sweden, 178 dozen from Finland, and 31 dozen from Toronto, Canada. In April, the paper recorded orders from Waines, Hawaii (Hawaii did not become a U.S. state until 1959) and Bombay, India, and in July, it reported that the company had shipped 24 dozen lures to Reddich, England.

Creek Chub Bait Company in Garrett, Indiana. Courtesy the Garrett Historical Society.

On January 20, 1936, the Garrett Clipper provided a summary of the company and described its continued growth since its founding in 1916:

Since then sales have increased from year to year and are made not only in this country and Canada, but lures are sent to 48 foreign countries, France and Sweden receiving the largest shipments. The sales demand in Canada is so large that a Canadian branch has been established, the work being conducted by Allcock, Laight & Westwood company, Toronto, Ont. Although in its infancy, the plant has been doing a large business and the prospects for its growth are fine.

1931 Creek Chub catalog. Courtesy Old Fishing Lure.

In 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, business at Creek Chub Bait Co. reached a new peak. Production and sales were up and employment remained steady. Despite its success though, the company was already beginning to feel the effects of the conflict abroad. Finland and England had been Creek Chub’s top buyers prior to the war, but both markets quickly closed as each country became engaged in the conflict. The company also purchased many of its treble hooks, which it used on its lures, from Norway and England.

By August 1941, Creek Chub experienced great difficulty acquiring the necessary hooks and other supplies for its famous lures, as materials were reserved for defense industries. Supply markets from Norway were shut off and an embargo on trade between the United States and Japan stopped the shipments of hooks from that country as well. On August 21, 1941, the Clipper warned about the future of Creek Chub, writing:

. . . unless there is some early change in the world situation the business of the company will be greatly restricted, if not entirely stopped.

Creek Chub Victory Bomber lure introduced in 1942. Courtesy Fin and Flame Vintage Fishing Tackle.

The outlook for the company became bleaker throughout 1942 following orders from the War Production Board curtailing the manufacture of fishing lures. On May 8, 1942, the Angola Herald reported that Creek Chub would cease production on May 31, in accordance with government orders. In response, Creek Chub petitioned the War Production

Board to allow it to use the metal it had on hand, which it estimated at approximately six months’ supply. By early June, the War Production Board gave the company permission to continue manufacturing lures during the month, and throughout the summer it granted temporary extensions that allowed Creek Chub to continue production, albeit at a much reduced rate. On January 28, 1943, the Garrett Clipper noted that Creek Chub employed thirty people, two to three times less than it had before the war. Employment decreased again slightly the following year, but the company remained open, using the limited materials it had on hand to produce lures.

Popular Mechanics, May 1962, p. 204. Courtesy Google Books.

By January 1945, employment began to increase as more materials became available and in September 1945, Creek Chub received its first shipment of steel hooks from Norway since the beginning of the war. Business was slowly getting back on track. Wanted ads for female employees began populating the local newspaper’s pages once again as the company sought additional employees to meet production goals and fill the backlog of orders that had accumulated during the war. By late December 1946, Creek Chub announced that it had leased a hotel building in nearby Ashley, north of Garrett, and it soon established a branch factory there to expand operations. The added facilities allowed business to double from 1947 to 1948, and within the next two years the company caught up on its backlog of orders.

Courtesy Russell Lewis, Classic Fishing Lures: Identification and Price Guide, 2005, page 38, via Google Books.

Creek Chub continued to look for ways to improve and diversify its product line in the 1950s and 1960s. This included entering the plastic bait field, developing new saltwater lures, and offering new color combinations. The company’s future looked bright, but by the late 1970s declining sales and questions regarding future leadership of the company began to weigh on Creek Chub.

[Muncie] Star Press, April 6, 1979. Courtesy Newspaper.com.
On December 24, 1978, the Des Moines [Iowa] Register reported that Lazy Ike Corp. of Des Moines had purchased the Creek Chub Bait Company. Reporter Bob Barnet confirmed the sale in the [Muncie] Star Press in April 1979, writing “. . . Hoosier-owned Creek Chub Bait Co., one of the nation’s oldest and most respected manufacturers of artificial lures, has been sold.” Lazy Ike, which was also in the lure industry, would continue to manufacture and market Creek Chub lures.

[Des Moines] Register, September 16, 1979. Courtesy Newspapers.com.
Unfortunately, within just a few months of the purchase, Lazy Ike filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Dura-Pak Corp. of South Sioux City, Nebraska acquired Lazy Ike Corp. and another fishing tackle manufacturer out of Vancouver, Washington in the early 1980s. Today, PRADCO owns the Creek Chub name.

Although the company closed in the late 1970s, Creek Chub lures continue to remain popular among collectors, a testament to their enduring quality.

Courtesy Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Summer 2002), page 20.