We love river drives, especially on the big rivers of the Midwest. They’re dotted with cities and small towns, and their long tenure as transportation corridors means they’re full of history and great stories.
Enter the Great River Road along the Mississippi River (see interactive map below).
A hundred years ago button factories and mussel camps lined both banks of the big, slow-moving rivers in the middle of the country. Freshwater mussels abounded in these bodies of water and often collected in shoals, areas where the current slowed as the river made a turn. Maybe the most famous of these is Mussel Shoals, Alabama, home of some great music history. Native Americans collected and smoked the meat of these bivalves, leaving great mounds of shells, called middens.
Through the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, mussel boats used brails and free divers dove from the banks, collecting mollusks as big as dinner plates. Often they found freshwater pearls inside. The meat was used as animal feed, and the shells themselves were cut into mother of pearl buttons. Plastic spelled the downfall of the button factories, all of which have disappeared.
Manchester, on the Ohio River, has a small museum with button factory history. Muscatine, Iowa was once known as the pearl button capital of the world with half the population making buttons from the harvest of the Mississippi. Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Kentucky all participated in the booming mussel industry of the time, making buttons and shipping raw materials to factories in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Near the town of Camden, Tennessee, a bit off I-40 at exit 133, you’ll find the Tennessee Freshwater Pearl Museum. Housed in the side room of a marina and RV park office, this little spot is rich with pearls and mussel harvesting history, and offers tours of their cultured pearl farming operation. Tours are sporadic, so be sure to call ahead. There’s good camping in the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, and the nearby National Wildlife Refuge offers the opportunity for great birding during spring and fall waterfowl migrations.
As you meander along these mighty rivers, don’t pass up the opportunity to dive into the past that ebbs and flows through them. Get your feet wet! Happy travels!