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Pearl Buttons

Mussel Boat of Beaver Family.jpg

Mussel Boat of the Beaver Family


Apparently from the Parkersburg News, date not given

Pearls, Buttons—From Ohio River

By Diana Hott

The News Correspondent

            The Ohio River furnished materials for an unusual industry which had its apex during the first two decades of the present century.  In Beavertown, five miles south of Matamoras on Route 7 at the Dawes community and stretching along the shallow shores toward Newport, industrious citizens capitalized on the large black-ridged shells of the fresh water river mussels. (Mollusca unionidae.)

            The fresh water mussels are lined with mother of pearl.  This iridescent lining was used to make buttons.  Buttons factories all up and down the river bought the mussel shells for processing; the nearest factories were in St. Marys and Wheeling, and the factory at St. Marys purchased most of the shells collected at Beavertown.

                                                            Mussel Boats

            The largest “fleet” of mussel boats was oared at Beavertown, a community project at which the Beaver and Mounts families worked.  Further down river, near Leith, Donald Louderback commanded the mussel boat industry. 

            The mussel boats were wide heavy skiff-like johnboats, designed to balance without capsizing in the water, even when the workers stood in them and the boat was loaded with many pounds of mussels. 

            This was before the days of dams; the river was shallow with sweeping bars, and a man could easily wade to the West Virginia shore in the summer.

                                                            Mussel Fishing

            Each boat was equipped with poles about ten feet long, bamboo if available, or sometimes a straight branch cut from the nearest tree.  These were fastened to upright braces affixed to the sides of the boats. 

            Each pole had 30 or 40 heavy lines going down from it, and at the bottom of each line were study [this is the word used—seems it would have been sturdy mm] hooks, each with four barbs.  The poles were lowered into the water and towed along, lines and hooks dragging the bottom.  As a hook slid into an open mussel shell, the shell closed over it.  At intervals, the workers raised up the poles and the mussels were pried off and tossed into the bottom of the boat. 

            Only cleaned-out mussel shells could be sold to the button factories.  So, when the mussel boats were landed, fires were built along the riverbank, and the loads of mussels piled into the black iron kettles full of boiling water. 

            The cooked meat was easily picked loose from the shell.  Women and children usually did this work, carefully searching for the pearls that sometimes occurred in mussels, just as they do in oysters.  Rings, pins and men’s tie tacks were made from the pearls, and some of this jewelry can still be found in the area. 

            The cooked meat from the mussel, although delectable and quite similar to the meat of a clam, was seldom used for human consumption.  Sometimes it was fed to dogs.  But more often it remained in a decayed, supperating [as typed in the article] pile on the hillside. 

            Pay for working in a mussel boat was about 40 cents a day. 

            Today, mussel collecting has again become popular in some areas, although not on the Ohio River.  The mother of pearl from the shell is polished into small beads which are used as a pearl producing irritant in oysters in countries, such as Japan, in which pearls are an export industry.



From a newspaper clipping, source and date unknown:

…35 cents for a bushel basket of mussels.

                                                Special Boats Used

            To harvest the mussels, Hank explained, a special boat was needed.  This boat would be around 12 feet long and four feet wide with a “standard” on either side. Attached to the standard were iron poles holding a number of ropes to which hooks were tied. These were let down into the mussel beds and as the boat moved slowly over the bed the hooks dug up the mussels. When one side was full, the other would be let down.  A contraption he described as a “mule” at the back of the boat, helped to shove it along in the water.

                                                A Real Cookout

            Camps for cooking the meat in the shells were situated along the river bank.  One, Hank recalled in particular, was in constant operation at the city wharf giving off an odoriferous aroma—probably the city’s first introduction to pollution.

            After the mussels were cooked, they were picked up by large forks similar to pitch forks and thrown over onto benches where the mussels were pried open and the meat picked out by hand.

            The nest step the mussels made on their way to becoming beautiful mother-of-pearl buttons was to be steamed for four or five days. This was done in large vats, placed near the factory.  (Hank says the vats are still there.)

            This process softened the shells and, after being sorted into sizes, they were ready for the buttons cutters.

            The buttons cutters, who practically taught themselves the trade, worked at machines placed side by side on a four foot wide bench built down the center of the factory.  The machines were powered by a gas engine, the shaft being against the wall.  It was necessary to have a steady stream of water sprayed constantly on the tiny saw blades, both Hand and Dent recalled. 

            The button cutter also had to buy his own machine and tools, keep them repaired and be sure the saws were filled to insure perfect slugs.

                                                Came in All Sizes

            “The mussels were in various sizes, ranging from 16 to 30,” Rockwell said.  He worked at this factor in the early 1900s and some days he would saw out as many as 14 quarts of 24s a day.  “This,” he admitted, “was a hard day’s work.”
            Hank Dotson still has some of the tools he purchased while working there, and he demonstrated how the tiny circular saws had to be kept filed.  “Some of the fellow never did get the hang of it, and I remember one fellow’s paycheck at the end of the week came to nine cents.”

            Rockwell said his first paycheck as a button cutter was $7 for a week.  “We were paid by piece work and the company counted a gross as 168 instead of the 144.  This was to allow for faulty slugs,” he explained.

                                                Honesty, the Policy

            Hank said the workers would let their daily output of slugs pile up while drying out in sawdust for the entire week, and on payday when they would get a lull, they’d carry the slugs to the bookkeeper and have them weighed on an automatic scale, whereupon she would figure out what they had coming and issue the check.

            The bookkeeper was the only female working at the factory.  The first to have this position was Minnie Lamoreau—later Ruth Marple Core took over the work.  “In those days,” Ruth said, “everything was handwritten.”

            Although each worker had his own pile of slugs, no one ever thought of bothering them.  Honesty was considered the best policy in those days.

            Every part of the mussel was used, and the various sizes were called such names as “Mother mucketts, pig toes,” etc.  Some of the mussels would be four lines thick and used for the larger more expensive buttons.  The outer trim of the shell was sawed by tip cutters for the cheaper and smaller buttons.  Whatever part of the shell remained was then ground into chicken feed.

            The slugs were shipped on to the finishing plant at Amsterdam, N. Y.

            Many of the workers were “floaters” from the Midwest, as far away as Muscatine, Iowa, Hank said.

            As in many endeavors, too much overhead finally kept the factory from making a profit and it shut down, but for a number of years St. Marys was a winner of he game, Who’s go the button.



Button, Button: St Marys has the Button Factory

By Jennifer L. Efaw


St Marys, the county seat of Pleasants County, is situated on the banks of the Ohio River, in a broad valley with the hills behind and the river in front. This combination has led to a variety of occupations for residents, with timber, manufacturing, farming, river transport, and the oil and gas industry all having enjoyed their periods of boom and bust.

            Surely, on of the more unusual local pursuits was the manufacture of pearl buttons from the shell of river mussels. These mussels, a type of freshwater mollusk, were once eaten by the Indians much as we eat clams today. Sometimes prehistoric encampments have been found by the large amount of mussel shells discarded nearby.

            The shells of river mussels are lined with mother-of-pearl, an iridescent substance prized for its beauty and durability in making beads, buttons, and other decorative items.

            Such shells are used today in the making of cultures pearls. A tiny piece of shell is slipped inside the oyster, where it acts as an irritant. The oyster is then returned to the sea in a wire cage, which protects it and makes retrieval easier. The nacre, a lustrous substance produced within the oyster, builds up layer by layer on the piece of shell until, in some oysters, a pearl is formed.

            By 1909, according to George E. Riggs, a local historian, gathering mussel shells along the river bank was a popular occupation of St. Marys townsfolk during times of low water. Occasionally, some rather fine pearls were found, some valued at $100 to $150, more than enough to ensure that collecting river mussels remained a popular hobby. But mostly the mussels were gathered for their shells, which were sold to pearl button factories elsewhere in the Ohio Valley.

            It was soon felt by the local Board of Trade the St. Marys could support its own factory, and a correspondence was begun between the city fathers and Harvey Chalmers and Sons of Amsterdam, New York, who operated a number of factories in the region.

            An agreement was reached. If the board could find and purchase suitable land, the company would locate a pearl button factory in St. Marys. A sum of $4000 was donated by local citizens to purchase land and erect buildings. A parcel of land was selected which was known in the county records as “the swamp lot.” Presumably this was because the lot was located in the flood plain, and was often wet and muddy as the river level rose and fell.

            Whatever its disadvantages, the swamp lot was situated conveniently for the factory, It was actually on Middle Island Creek, just north of the center of the city. The site was close to the point where the creek joined the river, and near as well to the main road and the railroad tracks.

            The land was purchased by the Board of Trade from R. Alexander Gallaher and others and deeded over to Harvey Chalmers, his son, Arthur, and their wives. A building was quickly erected, and in 1910 the button factory opened. At times, it employed 65 to 100 skilled men and laborers, and apparently work was surprisingly steady throughout the year.

            The saws which were used to cut the button blanks, or slugs, were powered by a gasoline engine, and a constant stream of water had to be directed onto the little saws to cool them. Mr. Riggs recalls that the factory had a gas-powered generator to supply water pressure to the hoses, the city of St. Marys not yet having electricity in all areas. Water was pumped from Middle Island Creek.

            By 1914, the factory was successful enough that it was incorporated ub Montgomery county, New York, Harvey Chalmer’s home county. The deed holder was changed in the Pleasants County records to “The St. Marys’ Pearl Button company of Amsterdam, New York.”

            Mr. Riggs remembers when he was a paperboy of ten or 12, delivering newspapers to the button factory. Each cutter controlled the flow of water to his saw with a rubber diaphragm, operated by a foot pedal.

            The factory men weren’t above a little mischief. Mr. Riggs says, “The first cutter in line would hit me in the face with a stream of cold river water as soon as I came in the door, and each man would hit me in turn until I made it our the back door”

.           Their fun was not limited to visiting paperboys. Mr. Riggs remembers that the cutter sprayed each other freely when the foreman chanced to turn his back, and even dared to wet the boss occasionally.

            Along the humid river bottom, before the days of air-conditioning, spraying each other down may have the only way to avoid heat stroke. Working in rubber aprons around hot machinery wouldn’t have helped matters.

            In spite of the working conditions, button cutting was considered a good job, paying better than many in the area. My grandfather, Ben Winland, along with many other St Marys men made a decent living working at the factory. I can remember playing as a child with what I took toot be strange-looking seashells my grandmother had kept for many years. They looked like a cross between a clam shell and Swiss cheese, full of perfectly round hole about an inch in diameter.

            I never met my grandfather, since he died before my birth, but I remember wishing I could ask about those curious shells. I later found out that these shells were common keepsakes in the county, along with saws and to the tools of the button trade.

            Dessie Stewart of St. Marys is from another local family which sent workers to the factory. “My father and three of my brothers worked at the button factory,” she recalls. “I still have some of their saws and some of the shell that they cut blanks out of.”

            Other workers were itinerant, highly skilled floaters who traveled up and down the rivers from the Mississippi eastward, going where the work took them. According to Mr. Riggs, “They stayed in one place six to eight weeks to three months, then moved on. They would announce on Friday, ‘Well, I’m going to drag up.’ That’s what they called it when they moved on, ‘dragging up.’ Some families came here as floater decided to stay on in St. Marys, and the families still live here today.”

            The mussel shell that provided the factory with its raw material were harvested in several ways.

            Gathering shells by hand remained common. It was possible to wade along the shore, leading a horse-drawn wagon, and easily load shell to sell to the factory. According to a 1975 article in the Parkersburg News, even small children once earned spending money by gathering Mussel shells.

            The Ohio River was so shallow and the water so clear in those days that anyone with a boat or barge could use a clam hook and simply reach down and pluck mussels off the river bottom. Wide, flat-bottomed boats were often used for mussel collecting. They could be loaded down with people and mussels with little danger of tipping.

            The most ingenious method of gathering mussels employed a contraption called a “brail,” a long metal rod or pipe fitted with intervals with long cords. On the cords were large, blunt hooks. The brail was dragged crosswise along the river bottom from a flat-bottom boat. The mussels, which ordinarily rested on the bottom with their shells open, would feel the hooks catch against their shell. Sensing danger, a mussel’s instinctive response was to close its shell, clamping down on the hook.

            When all the cords were covered with mussels, the rod and cords, with mussels still tightly attached, was pulled aback up onto the boat and relieved of their load. This operation was repeated until the boat was full.

            George Riggs, like many other children of the time, remembers swimming with friends over to nearby Middle Island. One of the larger Ohio River islands, Middle Island lies at the point where Middle Island Creek spills into the river. Close to the factory, yet, removed from town, it was a good place for mussel camps. In the summer, the camps would set up under large canvas tents. Boatloads of mussels were brought to the island by the mussel fishermen, where they were cooked, split, searched for pearls, and roughly cleaned.

            Cleaning the shells was a messy, smelly business, often performed by women and children. The mussels were first cooked in large iron pots over open fires. After the mussels were cooked, they were pried open and the meat picked out by hand – an unenviable task. Thought the meat was quite edible, most was either fed to dogs or thrown out to spoil. Parkersburg News correspondent, Dot Griffin, in an interview with Harry “Hank” Dotson, now deceased, said the mussel camps were “probably the city’s first introduction to pollution.”

Taken by barge to a landing point on the mainland, the shells were loaded into flatbed wagons with side rails and delivered to the button factory, where whey were sold to the manager by weight. Then the mussel shells were steamed in large bats near the factory for four or five days to soften them for cutting.