Volume 5, Number 10 - Winter 1975-76

by Elmo Ingenthron

The Ozark aborigines were, without doubt, the first people to utilize White River clams (mussels) for food, spoons and ornaments. This was confirmed by the excavation of various Indian sites in the region. Pendants, fashioned from mother-of-pearl appear among artifact assemblages of the area. However, pearls are rarely found in such collections. One exception was an unconfirmed report of a human tooth with a pearl embedded in the cavity.(5) References to turtle soup and clam chowder were made by the early pioneers, but neither of these appears to have been extensively used by the early inhabitants.

Pearl fishing was, no doubt, a common sport before the Civil War, but little economic significance was attached to it in the early years. It was probably a natural diversion from Sunday afternoon swimming bouts in hot weather.

Dr. J. H. Myers of Black Rock on Black River, a major tributary of White River, is credited with starting the pearling boom in the White River Valley. In 1891, Dr. Myers found a 14-grain, fine luster, pinkish-colored pearl which sparked a virtual stampede of pearl hunters into the river. When some of the pearls brought from $5 to $50 each, and there were rumors that others had brought more, the rush was on.(6)

In describing the participants engaged in the search for Pearly wealth, one writer of the time said, "I have seen as many as 500 men women and children of all sizes and colors on one bar, indiscriminately mingled, wading in as far as they could reach the bottom, some opening, others gathering shells. The wealthiest bankers, lawyers, merchants, doctors, etc., their wives and children, wading in with the poorest darkies, all laughing,


singing, working day after day, the summer through. "(7)

When stories of this nature spread, duly amplified by the news media of the time, a number of pearl buyers converged on the area, which resulted in even higher prices being paid for lucky finds. Some pearls brought more than $100. Rumors of $1,500 pearls spread among the inhabitants, which fired their latent ambitions into active endeavors heretofore unknown. When we remember that wages in those times were no more that 50 cents a day for a long day’s work, it is easy to see how White River rivaled the gold fields of California, and why people deserted their fields and places of business to seek sudden riches in the mussel bars of the river.

The search for pearly wealth spread from Black River to lower and upper White River, accompanied by itinerant pearl buyers. Some of the merchants in the towns and villages adjacent to the river also dealt in pearls. Large jewelry companies, like fur companies, often bought pearls by mail. This advertisement which appeared in the Taney County Republican is probably typical of this method of procurement. (8)

We buy pearls of all kinds
Myers Jewelry Company
1018 Main Street
Kansas City, Mo.

The value of a pearl depended upon its size, shape, color and physical characteristics. Pearls were mounted in or on all sorts of jewelry, ranging from rings and necklaces to beads and tiepins. Large spherical pearls of desired color and luster were, no doubt, in great demand, but many pearls were not of spherical dimensions. These were usually referred to as "slugs," "nuggets," "rosebuds, " "buttons," "turtlebacks" and "baroques." (9) The pearl market fluctuated from year to year, and there was a wide range of pearls, which was reflected in their market values.

Many pearls sold for only a few dollars, and some brought but a few cents. Out of 293 pearls bought in 1925 by J. L. Evans, a merchant and pearl dealer at Batesville, Ark., he paid less than $1 for 99 of them. Another 115 were purchased in a price range of from $1 to $2. Two were bought for $100 each and the remainder at various prices between $2 and $100. It was only the very rare pearls that brought exorbitant prices. Mr. Evans’ ledger of 1918 shows the sale of two such gems for $1,100. Another of his prize possessions left to posterity was a large clam shell on which he had written that the pearl found therein weighed 110 grains and was valued at $5,000. In 1922, John McCarroll, a father of nine children, found a large pearl on upper White River that must have been the dream of a lifetime. According to Mr. Evans’ records, he was paid $336 for the choice gem, which was certainly no small fortune in those times.(1O) Allen McCarroll, son of John McCarroll, said that he had heard his father say many times that the happiest moment in his life was that bright summer day in 1922 when he opened a scrawny insignificant mussel and saw that beautiful pearl.

The income from the sale of White River pearls increased rapidly once the pearl buyers developed competitive markets. The amount received from the sale of pearls in 1897 was only $11,000, but by 1903 it had risen to $125,000.(11)

Two or three years after the pearling enterprises were established, it was discovered that clam shells were marketable at northern button factories. Several carloads were shipped to some of these plants. But it took about 40 carloads of shells to make one carload of buttons, so the button companies soon established factories at several locations on White River, where blank buttons were made. These blanks were then shipped to the home factories for drilling and finishing. (12)

With the establishment of a market for shells, the pearlers had a two-way market for the fruits of their labors. They were preparing them for market, which earned them the title of shellers. During the warm summer months, after crops were laid by, a number of large families living along White River took to the clam beds where a considerable tonnage of clams was gathered and shelled.

On the upper reaches of White River, where it was too far to float the bulky shells to the Arkansas button factories, a portable sort of button extractor was constructed on a flatboat equipped with button saws, storage rooms for blanks and living quarters for the few employees. According to Chris Meadows, who was a participant in the pearling and shelling endeavors, these shell buyers came down the river about twice a year, usually in mid-summer and again in the fall. They stopped at various places along the stream, where quantities of shells had been readied for sale. At these stops, they weighed and bought the shells and whatever pearls the shellers had for sale. Here the first step in the manu-


facturing process began. The tube-like button saws of the extraction machines were first activated by foot-power but later they were driven by gasoline engines. At each stop, the blank buttons of the desired sizes were extracted, sacked and stored aboard the flatboat. When this was completed, the buyers were soon on their way to the next stop, leaving a host of perforated shells behind. When the railroad was completed through the Branson region, the shells were shipped to button factories, and riverbank sales to down-river buyers were discontinued. (13).

This change in marketing procedures is revealed in the following excerpt from the White River Leader.( 14)

"The first carload of mussel shells to be shipped from Branson is being loaded this week by George Esterday. The shells are being gathered in White River from the dam down to Moore’s ferry and are hauled by wagons to the railroad here. Shipments will be made to Iola, Kan., where they will be made into buttons. The shells are all examined for pearls by the gatherers, and it is said enough good pearls are found to pay well for this work. Mr. Esterday is paying $22 for river-run shells."

Some 29 species of mussels inhabited the waters of the upper White River valley, but it is doubtful if any of the clam diggers knew any of their scientific names. In fact, there was little need for such knowledge, for they soon formulated names or a sort of nomenclature acceptable to others associated with the business. The names the diggers applied to different species is evidence that they recognized many different physical characteristics in clams. They called the lowly Actinonaias carinata a mucket, the Lampsilis ventricosa, a pocketbook and the Pleurobema cordatum coccineum a niggerhead.(15) To other species they applied such names as: washboards, ladyfingers, butterflies, pimplebacks and pistolgrips, to name a few. The common names the diggers and shellers applied to their clams were simple and practical and served the participants well in the pursuit of their endeavors.

The clam shell market spanned a period of over 35 years. According to J. L. Evans’ ledger, he began buying shells in early 1900 for $4 per ton, and the highest price he ever received for them was $70 per ton. (16) In, 1927, buyers were paying up to

$65 a ton for choice White River shells. That was probably the year Mr. Evans received $70 per ton. With the beginning of the depression, the price dropped to $20 a ton, but rose to $33 per ton in 1936. (17)

Pearling and clam digging, like hunting and trapping, were seasonal enterprises that did not interfere, to any great extent, with planting and harvesting farm crops. They provided supplemental sources of income to farm families living adjacent to the river. Custom and technology have gradually phased our many interesting enterprises of the past. However, for many years, pearling and shelling, like herb digging and trapping, flourished intermittently, adding their bit to the history of the region and to the economy of the upper White River valley.


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