“Muscatine’s mark on history started in the 1890s.
“A gentleman by the name of John F. Beppel over in Germany was making buttons,” says Terry Eagle, Muscatine History & Industry Center director.
Not just any buttons– pearl buttons.
“Pearl buttons brought him very high profits.”
That’s because if you wore them: “That told me that I could pretty well do business with you if you could afford those pearl buttons. Pearl buttons became a symbol of wealth,” Eagle says.
And so, the demand grew and Beppel needed more mussels.
“He knew they liked to live in the bottom of the river and they liked to open up and filter water for nutrients. They loved slow-moving water.”
That led Beppel to the Mississippi River and to Muscatine.
“This German immigrant shows up on the shores of the Mississippi, starts making pearl buttons out of this fresh water shell and selling it to the lumber barons who could afford it– the word got out,” says Eagle.
The craze turned families into entrepreneurs.
“They’d have 10, 12 boats and they’d circle these mussel beds and put lanterns on them, put guns, cannons on them to keep people from Musseling in on their claim. This was the wild west of the Midwest.”
And turned the city of Muscatine into a money maker.
“By 1905, we were making 1.5 billion pearl buttons annually. One third of the world’s pearl buttons were made in Muscatine.”
Eagle says the pearl boom was the gold rush of the Midwest.
But soon, the mussels pulled out of the Mississippi seemed to be getting smaller.
“It dawned on them what they were doing. They were overfishing the whole center of the United States,” says Eagle.
And although the banks are no longer piled with shells, Eagle says it’s a national treasure that you can still find today.
“The shells from this industry still bubble out of our streets when we do street work, so it’s a history that won’t keep buried.”