Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Gathering Pearls Part 2

(Continued from Yesterday) The Interocean”, Chicago, Sunday, July 28, 1907

Pearl Diggers’ Camps Line Banks.
The banks of the river from old Vincennes to its mouth are literally lined with pearl diggers’ camps, the slopes are covered with thousands of tons of opened shells, and the surface of the stream for eight months of the year is dotted with boats from early dawn till late in the evening with a motley class of fortune seekers.

From the time that the first pearls were found in the Wabash river, only a few years ago, till the present their high commercial value has been recognized by the best expert judges of gems.  Their luster and perfection of shape have won and held for them a world wide reputation.  This fact has brought buyers from Paris, London, and nearly all of the leading American cities.  Paris probably has the greatest number of buyers on the field.  Pearl buyers walk the banks of the river and barter with the clam diggers all day long.  They usually carry considerable money with them and pay cash to the lucky finders of these lustrous nuggets of that comparatively unimportant river.

The pearl fisher is simply equipped.  He has a flat bottomed boat about sixteen feet long and four feet wide.  For catching the clams he has a hollow iron pipe about twelve feet long to which are attached curved iron hooks.  This device is lowered to the bottom of the stream and dragged with the current.  

Clams lie at the bottom of the water with the shell opening up stream for the easy ingress of water carrying the necessary food for their sustenance.  Then the dragging hook strikes the opening the clam closes upon it and holds fast till it is drawn up and pulled off by the fisherman, who keeps casting, dragging, and taking off until he has boat load.  This boat load of clams is taken to shore, unloaded, thrown into a vat, and steamed for a few minutes to kill the live clams within, which, at the same time, causes the two halves of the shell to open.  The opening of the shells is attended with a low popping noise, and when this noise is heard the operator immediately uncovers the steaming vat and shovels the shells upon a rough sorting table.

How Pearls Are Separated.
At the sorting table is the true place of interest in pearl fishing.  Here the fleshy part of the clam is separated from its shell and carefully felt of with the fingers.  If a hard substance is found it is examined closely, for a hard substance in the flesh of a clam means a pearl of some kind.  Of course, not all clams have pearls in them, but on an average about every third or fourth one contains a “slug,” which is simply an imperfect pearl—one defective in shape, or very small in size.  These slugs, however, are all carefully saved, for they have a commercial value, selling for about $3 an ounce.  Perfect pearls of much size are rare, but still valuable ones are found almost weekly, sometimes daily, and each man works carefully and long to be the lucky finder.  At any minute he may find one which will bring more ready cash than a whole month—perhaps a year—at some other kind of labor.  So he works expectantly on.

From the sorting table the empty shells are thrown into separate piles, for each kind a different market value.  They sell in the rough at from $5 to $12 per ton, so that those engaged in the industry make good wages from the sales of slugs and shells, even though they find no pearls of great value.
The best clam shells are sold to button factories, where they are made into pearl buttons.  The inferior grades are ground into poultry food and burned for fertilizer by the farmers.

The different species of clams have local common names given them by the pearl diggers.  The names usually relate to their shape.  Some are as follows:  Long John, Nigger Head, Musket, Washboard, Pig Toe, Wartle Back, Monkey Face, and Butterfly.

St. Francisville, Ill., ten miles below Vincennes, Ind., is but one of the lively places where pearls are hunted.  It is a typical pearl fishing town, and as good specimens have been found here as at any other place along the river.

Pearls sell from $3 to $50 a grain, according to shape and luster.  Those approaching nearest to perfect spheres bring the highest prices.

Some Rich Finds.

A pearl found May 4,1906, weighted twenty-two grains, and sold for $500 cash.  It was pinkish brown in color, had a high luster, and was nearly a perfect sphere.  It was found by Paul Greenmore, a Frenchman of St. Francisville.

In 1904 a pearl weighing forty-two grains was found by a young man only 17 years old.  He was a new hand, and found this valuable pearl the second day after beginning work.  He sold it the same day for $1,000.  It was sold a few days later for $1,600.  This young man, George Stangle of St. Francisville, Ill., immediately purchased a lot in the town, built a cottage, got married, and now is the proud father of a boy—all in the space of two years.

One in 1904, weighing eleven grains, was found by Jesse Griggs and sold for $175.  It was button shaped.

One in 1904, which weighed thirteen grains and was found by John Lowe, sold for $160.

Frank Sheridan sold one in 1904 for $150.

In 1905 one found in the Embarrass river near Lawrenceville, Ill., only a few miles from St. Francisville, sold for $2,000.

One at Mount Carmel, Ill., a few miles south, sold for $1,800.

Tom Mooney found a pearl in a hog lot and sold it for $200.  It proved later to be worth $750.

A farmer near this place shot a duck and sold it to the rural mail carrier.  The duck was taken home, and the wife on dressing it for cooking found in its crop a pearl which sold for $250.

The pearl industry on the Wabash river is said to be only in its infancy, as the beds of live, pearl bearing clams are practically inexhaustible.  With the present crude methods of fishing for them, it is not likely that they will soon give out.  The demand for the shells alone, even if no slugs or pearls were found, would make it reasonably profitable work for the class of people who engage in it.


Fresh water clams lie at the bottoms of the river, half buried in sand or mud, with their mouths, or open shell, rather, upstream so that water flows easily into them, carrying life and food.  Clams extract from water mineral and organic substances which their nature requires.  To catch them the pearl fisherman drops hooks suspended from a horizontal iron bar to the bottom of the stream and drags it down current until it catches on an opened shell.