Friends of Fairport Fish Hatchery swim toward tourist, educational attraction

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A new nonprofit group hopes to establish an historic fish hatchery as a shiny new attraction for students, historians and teachers.

The Friends of Fairport Fish Hatchery has earned a $47,368 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for educational signage to preserve and interpret the hatchery.

The group wants the signage to be part of a project to teach visitors about the connection between the hatchery, Mississippi River mussels, and the pearl button industry that dominated Muscatine from the 1890s to the early 1930s.

Congress established the hatchery in 1908 as a site to investigate mussel propagation in the Mississippi River to sustain the pearl button industry.

“We felt there was too much history about the fish hatchery, about the mussels that were raised here, about the pearl button history that it’s associated with, and we wanted people to know what that history is and bring it back to life.”

Sandy Stevens, president of the Friends group, wants to ensure generations to come can learn the history of the industry, the river and the hatchery.

“We’ll construct a pavilion … inside that we’ll have 14 educational panels, a timeline, some artifact exhibits and displays, and we’re also going to have interpretive trails. On the north side of Highway 22…there were cottages for the staff that worked here back in the 20th century.”

Trails will take visitors through the ruins and through the hatchery. 

Stevens, born and raised in Muscatine, lives in Louisville, Kentucky, but has a farm in Louisa County. His grandfather and great-grandfather were involved in Muscatine’s pearl button industry.

“It’s kind of helping the legacy live on. as a lifetime archaeologist, it gives me something to do in retirement that’s important to me,” he said.  

Like Stevens, Andy Fowler, fisheries biologist and hatchery manager, hopes to create awareness about an important part of the region’s history. He brought Stevens’ attention to the grant.

“Many times, I hear people, even in the Muscatine area, say they didn’t realize we had a fish hatchery here,” Fowler said.

Fowler manages the hatchery where he moves fish in and out of ponds, stocking and harvesting ponds where fish such as bluegill and bass are raised.  

“Prior to 2016, we were able to sell to private individuals,” he said. “Now we only stock public waters out of the station.”

“I’ve been here since 2016,” Fowler said. “After a few months, maybe a year or two, I quickly realized I need help from the local community to support this hatchery and to make it the success that I feel like it can be, to kind of show off that crown jewel that I think it was and still can be.”

“Organizations like the Friends group are really fundamental toward making that goal toward a reality,” Fowler said. “We desperately need that help.”

it will take about $100,000 for the pavilion project, where hatchery supporters hope busloads of students visit. the signage will have QR codes to allow visitors to access even more information online.

Stevens hopes the entire project will be done by December 2022 – a glowing tribute to river history.

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