The Pearl and Mussel Industry on the Wabash. An unpublished essay by: Elizabeth Hemrich. (undated)

Between 1905 and 1915 many people came to the Wabash river. They came hoping to strike it rich by finding pearls.

The musslemen named many parts of the river by the surroundings and by the waters. Some of these are Devil's Elbow, The Narrows, Harness Landing, and Crow's Nest. This also was a way to mark their territory.

Many of the pearls were white or cream and often called "white gold." Others were pink, yellow, and blue. The pearls also vary in shapes and sizes. Some were perfect globes others were long and slender. These were called spikes or slugs. The spikes or slugs were used to make earrings, tie pins, broaches, or necklaces. The necklaces were on dainty gold chains in artistic arrangements.

Mussels were gathered with a pitchfork or a tool called a crowsfoot. The crowsfoot is a group of hooks made from number 10 wire. They are bent like fish hooks, several without barbs. These hooks were drug along the river bottom. When a feeding mussel touches a hook it clamps itself to the hook and is pulled up. A crippled washboard mussel is the best bet to obtain a good pearl.

Jumbo Adams was an interesting mussleman. Legend has it he woke up one morning and decided to have a few mussles for breakfast. After cooking them in a bucket he opened all but one bigh black shell. In it he found a brilliant light blue pearl the size of a marble. Since it was still hot he popped it into his mouth to cool it gradually. This kept the cool air from cracking the pearl.

Jumbo who hardly ever had more than twenty dollars at one time sold the blue pearl to the nearest dealer for eight hundred dollars. Twenty-four hours later the pearl was sold to a New York dealer for two thousand five hundred dollars. Later it was resold to Tiffanys of London and finally was used as a replacement pearl in Queen Alexandra's necklace. It is the only Wabash pearl said by England to be used in any of the Royal Jewels. Queen Alexandra's necklace is called the Dagmar necklace, and was a wedding present from her father.

When the pearl began to lose it's luster it was told that Jumbo Adams was in trouble and placed in prison. When Queen Alexandra heard of this she had Jumbo Adams released from prison, with the help of Judge Green from Mt. Carmel. Legend has it after his release the pearl came back to life.

Many musselmen worked the river for years and never found a pearl, but they still made a living off musseling. They could sell the meat to canning factories or for fish bait. The shells could be sold to button factories for fifteen dollars a ton. After World War II plastic buttons became popular and few buttons were made from shells.

Ninty percent of the shells now taken from the river go to Japan. There they are ground into small pellets which are inserted into three-year-old mussels. This irritates the mussel which is how Japan forms cultured pearls. This shows a little of the Wabash river still lives in the modern pearl industry.