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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
shell that provided the factory with its raw material were harvested in several
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.