MUSCATINE, Iowa—A new chapter in Muscatine’s pearl button history opened Jan. 17 when Preservation Iowa named the Fairport Fish Hatchery’s pump house to its 2020 Most Endangered Properties list. The designation will allow for a variety of new conservation efforts to move forward.
Terry Eagle, Director of the National Pearl Button Museum @ History and Industry Center and member of the Mussels of Muscatine conservation organization first learned about the pump house’s significance last year. While touring the hatchery, Eagle found out the site originally opened as a federally run biological station operated to propagate mussels for use in the pearl button making industry. After the fish hatchery became a Department of Natural Resources property and its focus shifted, the DNR replaced all the original biological station buildings with new ones better suited to their purposes, except for the pump house. Several years ago, water damage to the walls led hatchery staff to abandon it all together and begin planning to demolish it.
When Eagle learned of these plans, he wanted to save the pump house to preserve its history and use it to support future conservation efforts. “You have to learn from history,” he stressed. “If you tear it down and cover it up, you’ll forget about it and make the same mistakes again.”
Eagle reached out to Conservation Iowa and began working with them to have the pump house added to their list of Most Endangered Properties. Eagle felt elated when he got word Friday that Conservation Iowa had moved forward to help save it.
With the support of Conservation Iowa and the members of Mussels of Muscatine (the City of Muscatine, National Pearl Button Museum, the Nature Conservancy and the Iowa DNR) Eagle has big plans for restoring and repurposing the pump house. Initially, the pump house will need work to stabilize its walls, damaged by years of gutter leaks.
Once restored, Eagle would like to turn the pump house into an interpretive area, curated through a partnership between the hatchery and the National Pearl Button Museum. Through plaques and displays, visitors could see how the fish hatchery started out to propagate mussels and how efforts going on at the fish hatchery work to restore mussel populations today.
Eagle hopes that the restored pump house, along with other pearl button historical sites along Muscatine’s stretch of the Great River Road, could spur tourism, which could raise money to support Mussels of Muscatine’s goal to raise more mussels at the hatchery in the future. “All we’re doing is trying to put Muscatine back on the forefront, not with pearl buttons but with clean water initiatives,” stated Eagle.
Melanie Harkness, a natural resource technician at the hatchery, shared that they have several mussel propagation projects already in process. These include overwintering fish needed for other hatcheries to feed their mussels in the spring, maintaining mussel rearing cages in several locations along the river, and learning how best to propagate common species of mussels. As the mussel propagation program continues to expand in years to come, Harkness looks forward to possibly propagating endangered species of mussels as well. The new conservation efforts at the pump house mark the beginning of making these plans realities.