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Clams, Pearls, and Button Cutting Tools

Updated: May 12, 2023

Figure 1. The Lathe.

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. XXIII, No. 3, September 1970

By Barbara Tucker, Grace Mary Ederer, and Coral Draxten

The real romance and excitement of the big pearl hunting days on the Mississippi River are gone for­ever. Some of the flavor of this period should be pre­served for tomorrow. In 1904 Praire du Chien, Wis­consin, the one time capital of the clamming business, was humming with approximately 10 clam shell cutting shops providing incomes for over 300 families. The air was filled with the philosophy of the prospector – "Eating money today – but I'll hit a pearl and the big money tomorrow." Several pearls brought as much as $2,000 each, which, during the years of the button boom, was a great deal of money. Six hundred dollars per year was fairly high income during the years of 1900 through 1933.

The button cutting industry was at its best from 1904 and started to decline during the early 1930s. During the height of the business, each of the 10 shops had between ten to twenty cutting machines. One large shop, which had 104 machines, was owned by Chalmers Company, Amsterdam, New York. Chalmers bought the button blanks cut by the smaller shops and shipped them via railroad to New York. These button blanks were shipped in burlap bags in quantities of 150 pounds per bag. During the peak of the industry, these ship­ments approximately one boxcar load per week. The clam shells were usually sorted according to color and size before delivery to the factory by the Clammers. Some of the descriptive classifications of the shells were Warty Back, Yellow Sand Shell, Pigtoe, 3 Ridge, Sheep Nose, Double Saucer, Wash-board, Pancake pink and white, Oyster Shell Clam, Strawberry, Buckhorn, Muckett, Pocket Book, and Butterfly.

Cutting factories were equipped with machines that were steam powered, Figure 1. The Holding Tongs, Figure 2, were of varying sizes to hold the different shell sizes and shapes. The Saw Blades, Figure 2, were graduated from 14 to 45 line blank sizes. The round Saw Blades were larger in diameter at the chuck end so that the cut blank would slip down and would be ejected as a new blank was cut.

Shells were soaked in warm water for several days to soften them, otherwise they were too brittle and might crack or shatter when they were cut. The principle of the lathe was the same as the lathe of today with a head piece which revolved and held the Saw Blade. The Tongs were held against the tail piece and the shell was pushed against the Saw Blade, Figure 1. Water from a double nozzle was run over the shell continually in two streams under great force to remove the shavings from the shell and to keep it clean. Scrap from the cut shells was ground up and sold to chicken farmers.

Figure 2. Left, Holding Tong. Middle, from top to bottom - Conwfoot Hook; 6 inch gauge; two Saw Blades. Right, Holding Tong.

A shell is also pictured in Figure 2 to illustrate how the blanks were positioned and cut to get the greatest number of blanks from each shell. The men were paid by the gross. For example, it took about a week to cut one twelve quart pail of "14's." In Figure 2 there is also a gauge, 6 inches long, used to measure the lines.

Clammers provided clams for the factories. Entire families would move to the islands near dam beds during the season of April to November, Figure 3. All during the season Grocery Boats would travel the river bringing food to these campers. The Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers were dotted with one man John Boats, Figure 4. The John Boat was a square-ended flat scow with twelve to fourteen foot gas pipe or wooden bars raised on crotches on each side of the scow. These bars were held far from the boat with ropes while dragging. Chains with approximately seventy-five Crowfoot Hooks, middle top, Figure 2, spaced on the chains were suspended from these bars. One bar at a time was lowered into the river over a clam bed. Drifting was the term used to describe the movement of the boat over these beds. The speed of Drifting was controlled by the use of a Mule or canvas covered frame. The Mule was dropped into the river at the bow of the boat. It was necessary to have various sizes of Mules. For ex­ample, a smaller mule was used in the spring when the current was fast. The Clammer had to determine the speed and direction by the appropriate choice of Mules. His judgment in this matter affected the success of his catch. If the clamming was good, the Mule would be pulled up and the boat allowed to sit over the bed while the Clammer pulled in the bars one after another. As the hooks passed over the clam bed, the flesh of the feed­ing clam would "clam up." No hour of the day or night seemed to be better for clamming. When the hooks were thought to be full, the bar was raised and the second bar was immediately lowered so no time was lost over the clam bed. The clams were removed from the first bar which was again lowered after the sec­ond bar was raised. Motors were used on the John Boats for transportation from the camp to the dam bed and return to camp. Inboards were used before out­boards were manufactured in 1915.

Figure 3.

After returning to camp after the catch, the Clammers would steam the clams in large tubs of boiling water for about one half hour. The tubs were four to five feet in length and two to three in width. The sides of the tubs were made of wood and the bottom of tin. Care had to be taken not to steam these for too long a time or at too hot a temperature in order to preserve the lus­ter of the shell.

Following the steaming procedure, the clams were shoveled onto a large table and allowed to cool. The meat was removed and very carefully perused for pos­sible pearls or Novelty Slugs. Older women were used to examine the meat instead of children. A pearl was too precious to be entrusted to a child. Reference to a Novelty Slug was printed in the Crawford County Press, April 19, 1911. "J. P. Albee, veteran fisherman, has a baroque that is a real novelty – an unusual gem that is commanding more than ordinary attention. He named it Minnehaha pearl and at one time refused $3,500 for it. It resembles a ladies face." The discarded meat was thrown into baskets or barrels and sold for fish bait or chicken food.

Figure 4. John Boat.

References Parker, Hugh. British Hollow Trading Post: Original clam­ming pictures, personal communication. Schaub, Ben. Riverside Repair Shop, Prairie du Chien (for­mer Astor Trading Post): Personal communication and per­mission to photograph tool collection. Mara, Joe. Former foreman of a button cutting shop, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin: Crawford County Press, Wisconsin.


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