116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa All Over: ‘Pearl button capital of the world’
Sep. 13, 2015 8:00 pm
MUSCATINE — Muscatine, a city of 23,888 on the banks of a mighty river in Eastern Iowa, has earned its nickname as the Pearl of the Mississippi.
That's thanks to the hard work and entrepreneurship of one man — John F. Boepple, an immigrant button maker who launched Muscatine's pearl-button industry in 1891.
Today, visitors from across Iowa come to the river town to tour the Pearl Button Museum, located inside the Muscatine History and Industry Center.
The museum chronicle's the history of the pearl-button industry through interactive exhibits, videos and displays. Visitors can touch and feel the difference between pearl buttons and plastic buttons. (Real pearl buttons are cold to the touch, and are made from the pearl of mussel shells.)
Searching for mussel shells, Boepple began looking in Illinois. But the early shells he found in the Sangamon River were too fragile for cutting. So he continued searching and ended up in Muscatine, where he came upon a treasure trove in the Mississippi River.
To unearth the treasure, the pearl-button industry employed mussel fisherman called clammers. A detailed exhibit in the museum explains stages of clamming and features a huge pile of mussel shells as well as historic photos of clammers and the tools they used.
Outside the museum, along Muscatine's riverfront, a large clammer statue was erected to honor these fishermen. According to the museum, as early as 1908 the clamming industry averaged between 40,000 and 60,000 tons of shell annually at a value of $800,000 to more than $1 million.
'We were mining from the whole center of the United States, shell to be brought to Muscatine by barge and railroad car for this industry,' said Terry Eagle, assistant director of the Muscatine History and Industry Center. 'In the heyday, we were making 1.5 billion pearl buttons annually, one-third of the world's pearl buttons coming out of Muscatine.'
Accordingly, the city earned the designation of Pearl Button Capital of the World, according to the center.
Today, there are three plastic button factories in Muscatine — McKee Button Co., J & K Button Co. and Weber Button Co., said Mary Wildermuth, executive director of the Muscatine History and Industry Center. Many downtown Muscatine businesses echo the city's history through their names, including the Pearl Martini Bar and Lounge and small businesses in the Pearl Plaza.
Just 20 minutes away from downtown Muscatine, the Pine Creek Grist Mill is another example of Muscatine's connection to an industry from the past.
The mill was built by European settler Benjamin Nye in 1848.
It actually was the third mill Nye built along Pine Creek, and today is the oldest working grist mill between the Mississippi and the Rockies located on its original site, said Tom Hanifan, president of the Friends of Pine Creek Grist Mill.
'Typically when a town starts it starts with a mill, whether it's a lumber mill or a grist mill, and then people flock to that area,' Hanifan said. 'They maybe are growing things and have animals that need to have what they've grown turned into animal feed.'
In 1927, the state of Iowa bought the mill from the Missel family, and it became part of Wildcat Den State Park. The mill runs annually from May through mid-October.
If you go
Muscatine History and Industry Center
Where: 117 W. Second St., Muscatine
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, during the months of March through December; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday, during January and February
Admission: $5 adults, $1 for students
Call (563) 263-1052 or go to muscatinehistory.org
Pine Creek Grist Mill
Where: 1884 Wildcat Den Road, Muscatine
Hours: 12:30 to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, mid-September to mid-October; 12:30 to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays in May; 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, June to mid-September
Call (563) 263-4818 or go to pinecreekgristmill.com