Tag Archives: Wabash River

Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

[This post originally appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Newspaper Program]

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers.

If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905

(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse.  He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open.  “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.”  Shells were sent off to button factories.)


rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard

(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911.  Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off.  The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes.  Photo by Lloyd Ballard.  Beloit College Archives.)


At the time of European settlement, Midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800.  The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many uses for mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles (what archaeologists call middens) in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  (And they were large towns.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.)

Excavations in southwestern Indiana have turned up so many freshwater mussel shells that archaeologists dubbed one early group the “Shell Mound People.”  Often a fertility symbol, shells may have had a deep spiritual meaning for the Mound Builders and played a role in their rituals of life and death.  Pearls — hardened secretions meant to neutralize invading irritants and parasites — were undoubtedly used by Native Americans to decorate their bodies.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm

(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois.  St. Louis Community College.)


Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War (they relied on shell, horn, and bone), the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really get going until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

“Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.”

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910.

Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati, and when the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells

(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907.  For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash.  When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)


Vincennes saw an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they pollished into jewelry in cities like New York.  $1000 was a considerable amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturing.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shantytown called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash River, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.”

In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out.

From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.)

Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell


leavenworth button works

(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed 24 families — most of the population of the town.  This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall.  Long shutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below.  Discarded shells were burned to produce lime.  “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood.)


button factory at st. mary's west virginia

(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910.)


Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

“A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.”

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police.  (Steve Cable tells the interesting story of labor leader McGill, who was murdered in 1924 at age 29.)

In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired a worker, Charles Higginbottom, for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson dies of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decides that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks’ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister


Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.

Wabash Valley Visions & Voices has uploaded a rich oral history interview with Arlow Brazeal of Newport, Indiana.  Brazeal, who died in 2000, recalled the last days of commercial musseling on the Wabash and Vermillion Rivers after he began fishing there in the 1930s.

 

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The Hermit on the Banks of the Wabash

[This post first appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Historic Newspaper Program.]

indianapolis-journal-01-31-1904

Almost exactly 111 years ago, in January and February 1904, readers of the Indianapolis Journal and Sullivan’s Union and Democrat encountered this news.

An “eccentric” Sullivan County resident — the Hermit of the Wabash, journalists were calling him — had just survived a winter flood on the river.  A late-January thaw sent at least two feet of ice water into the hut he called home.  Unable to get to higher ground, the 74-year-old recluse passed two frigid days and nights without heat or food, cooped up under his roof, waiting for the flood to go down.  The man was “greatly prostrated by this terrible experience.”  Doctors were treating him for exposure.

Many readers around Sullivan and Merom knew this hermit, or at least of him.  He read and wrote poetry, looked like Tolstoy or John Muir, and lived in a remote rustic shack, like his near-contemporary Henry David Thoreau.

caskie-5

Ruth Eno Durham, a Graysville historian of half a century ago, who probably met the hermit when she was a girl, wrote in 1959: “He was a naturalist, a philosopher, a man of culture and refinement living the life of a mussel man, fisherman and outdoorsman.”

Sullivan County historian Tom Frew even believes the “Hermit of the Wabash” is at the center of one of the great photographic mysteries of the Civil War era.  Frew may be right.  While identifying the “quiet philosopher” as the mystery man of 1859 is uncertain, he was undoubtedly nearby when that iconic image was made, during one of the meteoric events that led up to the war.

How did this ex-Confederate, nature lover, and happy recluse get to a remote corner of the Hoosier State?

Back in 1885, as Ruth Durham recalled, a “small boat with a lone occupant” came up the Wabash and landed at Merom, next to some men out fishing the river for mussels.  (Midwestern rivers then were full of these creatures.  The meat provided food, while their glistening shells were shipped to thriving button factories in Cincinnati.  Several small Indiana river towns prospered in the button industry in those days.  Mussel harvesting was banned only in 1991.)

Taking-a-break

(Men harvesting mussels, Sullivan County, Indiana, circa 1900.  Wabash Valley Visions and Voices.)

The lone stranger announced himself.  He was “Captain Roland Smythe” — a pseudonym.  “He went up the ferry road,” Durham writes, “got some supplies and rowed on up the river.”  Easing into the mouth of Turman’s Creek where it flows into the Wabash, the strange boatman met Ruth’s father-in-law, Dr. John L. Durham, “who was standing there and owned the land.”

Smythe and the doctor became friends right away.  Durham let him build a two-room hut, christened “Solitude,” on the property he owned with his wife, Mary Mann Durham.  The mysterious newcomer lived there for more than 20 years.

“Solitude” sat on a high bank of the Wabash, a spot less prone to flooding — though in 1904, his luck ran out.

George Bicknell, a minor Hoosier poet from Sullivan, went out to meet the hermit at Turman’s Creek one summer.  His article in Craftsman magazine (September 1909) describes that visit.

Bicknell and others reported that the fascinating hermit was intensely religious, though (like John Muir) unconventionally so.  A graduate of the University of Virginia, Smythe was “able to express his thought brilliantly [and] has often been urged to write for publication, but he always refuses… [He] says always he prefers to live his song rather than sing it.”

caskie-1

Like Thoreau, who “traveled a great deal in Concord,” discovering the multitude of life in a small place, Captain Smythe was not always solitary.  “Hundreds of people visit him every year,” Bicknell wrote.  “Many unusual and curious questions are asked him… His understanding and knowledge of the classics is unusual.  He probably has not seen a set of Shakespeare in forty years, yet there are whole passages from any of the plays which he can give you word for word…”

Hundreds of visitors came to “Solitude” to see how he lived the so-called “simple” life.  Eventually, the hermit’s own children came.

Around 1900, a daughter who lived back East “followed his trail” out to Indiana.  Two years after the flood, a 1906 article in the Hutsonville Herald claims: “this daughter, a member of the wealthy inner social circles of New York, found him cooking a meal on his broken-down stove. There was a pathetic scene. She sat on the river banks pleading his return to ‘civilization’… It was then he declared that the ‘wilderness of houses’ and the cramped life held nothing out to him.  ‘I will stay near to nature and live with her,’ he declared.”

The true identity of “Captain Roland Smythe” was probably not known to anyone in Sullivan County then.

He was born Robert Alexander Caskie in Richmond, Virginia, in 1830.  The Hutsonville Herald writer mistakenly thought he came from an aristocratic Old Virginia family, “blue bloods… whose forefathers dwelt in mansions on the James.”  Caskie’s father, in fact, was an immigrant from Ayrshire, Scotland.

The future hermit was educated at the University of Virginia, the greatest university in the South then.  On December 20, 1859, he married Amanda Gregory, daughter of a former Virginia governor, John Munford Gregory.  When the Civil War broke out, Caskie went on to serve as captain of Caskie’s Rangers, a mounted company in the 10th Virginia Cavalry.  He fought in many of the major battles of the war, including the last one, at Appomattox, where he was mustered out, having been promoted to colonel in February 1865.

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A broken man at war’s end, Robert Caskie went back to his family’s tobacco business.  But with the South in ruins, he eventually took his family west, becoming one of the biggest tobacco merchants in Missouri.  In the late 1870s, the Caskie family was living at Rocheport, on the Missouri River, just west of Columbia.

Bankrupted by a lawsuit back in Virginia, around 1884 the desperate tobacco dealer abandoned his family.  On the verge of being driven into poverty, he seems to have chosen it on his own terms.  It was then that he rowed up the Wabash, seeking (it seems) a remote place to hide from creditors and his family alike.  Durham thought he was too proud to live on his wife’s money.

Robert Caskie had become “Captain Roland Smythe.”

Whatever else his visitors knew about his life, it was an event he had witnessed back in 1859, just a few weeks before he married the daughter of the ex-governor of Virginia, that really stuck in their minds.

In October of that year, the radical abolitionist John Brown tried to spark and arm a massive slave revolt by raiding the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry on the Potomac.  Brown’s raid failed catastrophically.  Virginians went into mass hysteria.  Considered the greatest “terrorist” of his time, the much-hated Brown was scheduled to hang on December 2.

To beef up security while Brown languished in a Charlestown prison a few miles from Harpers Ferry, Virginia governor Henry Wise had organized several militia companies.  One formed in Richmond was known as the “Richmond Greys.”  Robert Alexander Caskie appears in their roll book and, as he told the poet George Bicknell, he went to Charlestown that November.

Stopping at the jail where John Brown was being held, Caskie managed to strike up a conversation and friendship with the condemned abolitionist.  The 29-year-old Caskie even got permission from Brown’s guard to bring him the newspapers.  (What his own views on slavery were aren’t clear.  Many men who fought for the Confederacy were never ardent defenders of it.)  He also claims that it was he who finally convinced Brown to send a telegram to Philadelphia for his wife.

johnbrown_song

On December 2, 1859, Caskie watched as Brown stepped up to the gallows, his body on the way to “mouldering in the grave,” as the famous enemy of slavery was memorialized in a Civil War song.  Many years later, Caskie described what he saw to George Bicknell:

“The wagon was driven through the line and up close to the gallows.  John Brown jumped to the ground and skipped up the steps to the platform as though he were a mere boy.

“The gallows was unusually high, giving a view of a landscape unsurpassed for its beauty and grandeur.  The sun shone with all its brightness, the grass was still green.”

It is possible, even likely, that Robert A. Caskie appears in two of the most famous images taken at the time of that event.  These are two ambrotypes (a “relative” of the daguerreotype) that languished in obscurity until 1911.  Historians generally agree they depict the Richmond Greys and were made in Charlestown just before Brown’s execution.  The first one, known as “RG #1,” has become one of the iconic images of the Civil War era.  (It was featured in Ken Burns’ famous documentary and book.)

Robert A. Caskie, the “Hermit of the Wabash,” might be the man with the mustache and goatee standing in the middle of “RG#1.”  Comparing this to the few other images we have of him, including in old age, the faces are similar.

richmond-greys-1

“RG #1″ is a famously contentious image.  At least three of the men depicted here (including the one now thought to be Caskie) have been “forensically” examined and identified as John Wilkes Booth.  (The other two men stand in the left corner.)

Lincoln’s assassin, in fact, saw John Brown’s hanging.  It is thought that Booth was leaving a theater in Richmond when the Richmond Greys marched by, and the 21-year-old Shakespearean actor bought a uniform from them.  Booth definitely witnessed Brown’s last moments.

(Booth, too, has a surprising connection to Indiana.  His father, the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, sickened and died on a riverboat on the Ohio River across from southern Indiana in 1852, while en route from New Orleans to Cincinnati, probably after drinking river water.)

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Under pressure from his children, and “after he became too old to stand the rigors of the river,” Robert Caskie finally left the Wabash Valley around 1910.

In June 1931, a writer for the Sullivan Union remembered that after he left “Solitude,” “Captain Smythe” lived with Ed Salee’s family in Sullivan, then moved off to Indianapolis with the Salee family.  One of Caskie’s sons eventually came out to Indianapolis from New York or Philadelphia.   “This was the last that was ever heard of the old hermit of the Wabash by the Salees or anybody in this community.”

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But the hermit’s adventure was not done.  In 1922, aged 90, he applied for a passport and traveled to France and Switzerland, where he lived with a daughter.

Aged 98, Col. Robert Caskie died of heatstroke in Philadelphia in August 1928 and was buried there.  In later years, “The Hermit” was reburied at Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, near many of the honored Confederate dead.