Monday, January 18, 2016

Pearl Fever

One of the companion exhibits that we are preparing for the Smithsonian will be about Pearl Fishing in the Embarras and Wabash rivers. The researchers are gathering articles and information.

Pearl Fever

Pearls were never the primary reason for the Wabash and Embarrass rivers’ mussel industry. The shells themselves were used in the manufacture of buttons since 1887, and shells by the tons were used in the early 1900’s. Plastic buttons didn’t exist, wooden buttons tended to break, and metal buttons were too heavy. Vincennes was the site of the largest privately-owned button factory in the nation.

The button factory in St Francisville located at 13th and Button street (formerly Cherry Street) cut 500-700 button blanks a week. In 1904, that factory employed 10 men. The shells sold for $3-12 a ton depending on the type of shell. The shells were then sold by the carload to farmers to burn and use to enrich the soil. The meat was fed to the hogs.

About 1905, while removing the muscle meat from the shell a worker discovered a pearl. Soon other workers made similar discoveries. The local jeweler inspected the pearls and announced they were valuable. At that time, when laborers worked for less than a dollar a day, a pearl worth $100 or more represented a fortune. News of the pearl discovery spread like wildfire. Clerks left their stores, hired hands abandoned their plows and fishermen turned from fish to muscles. Pearl fever spread as quickly as gold fever had in 1849. Pearl buyers flocked into this area from New York, Paris, Spain, England, Hungary and Belgium. The biggest and best freshwater pearls were selling for $500-$3000. A hired hand earned about $200 a year; the average house in Vincennes so for $500-$1000. Finding one good pearl could put a person on easy street.

There was always the dream of one day coming home with a great pearl, and several did. At the turn of the century, the Wabash River near Vincennes teemed with activity as a special breed of fishermen searched for an elusive treasure that lay on the river’s bed—fresh water mussels and the elusive pearl that lay hidden within the shell. A fortune in gems came from the Wabash during the maddest, most exciting chapter in fortune hunting since the California gold rush.  For a period of seven or eight years there was more money coming off the river than there was all the corn, wheat and coal mined on either side of the Wabash river.

Men came to the Wabash river at Vincennes and Westport and St Francisville, to seek pearls.  “No one wanted to work in the fields; everybody was on the river because there was the chance of a strike of a pearl and you could make more money with mussel shells than you could with farming,” according Granville Palmer, a pearl buyer, in an interview given  in March 1979. “The lure of the money, the fascination of maybe finding something brought all kinds of men, as well as all kinds of women followers.”  Granville said, “The pearl buyers needed body guards as they carried large sums of money to purchase pearls. It was a rough, rowdy time.”

Vincennes Capital  November 28, 1903.
George Oswald, a mussel digger was arrested on a charge of intoxication and along with him were two sons, aged 19 and 14 and an innocent dog who was tied to the arm of the younger boy.  The old man purchased his whiskey by the jug and gave it  to his sons so freely that they were soon too weak to navigate and lay down in the barn of Mr. Byers a few blocks away from police headquarters where they were taken into custody along with the dog.

Vincennes became the mecca for pearl buyers from Europe and Asia. Pearl buying transactions reached the $320,999 mark in 1906 that  in an article written in 1977, would be equal in 1977 to about 3 million dollars.  By 1910 business had ‘boomed’ to a million dollars, according to the May 25, 1906 Vincennes Sun newspaper.   “For every pearl found there were thousands of “slugs, small imperfect odd shaped pearls. These sold for $15 per ounce and were sent to France to be used for face powder.” Asian buyers brought them for use as medicine.

Tomorrow’s blog will feature a story about Queen Mary’s Wabash Pearl.


            Barbara Ross, of Crawford County, will be the guest speaker at the meeting of the Lawrence County Historical Society on Monday, January 25, 7:00 p.m. at the Lawrenceville museum.  Her program topic will be:  Lawrence County veterans from the War of 1812. 
            Ms. Ross has been well noted genealogist in southeastern Illinois for more than 30 years.  In 2011 she began her work of identifying all War of 1812 veterans buried in Crawford and Lawrence Counties, and much of her research was used by the State of Illinois to complete its soldier project in commensuration on of the war’s bicentennial.

            The program is free and the public is invited.