MUSCATINE, Iowa–For 35 years, Sandy Stevens worked as an archeologist specializing in historical preservation. When he learned from the former National Pearl Button Museum @ History and Industry Center Director Terry Eagle about a project to save the Fairport Fish Hatchery’s pump house and to highlight its historical role in the pearl button industry, he felt personally drawn to it. Along with allowing him to use his archeology skill, the project also had a personal connection, “my great-grandfather and grandfather owned button companies in Muscatine from circa 1900-1937,” he shared.
Throughout much of 2020, Stevens worked with Eagle to preserve the pump house. When Eagle retired, Stevens wanted to continue the work and the story of the fish hatchery’s role in Muscatine’s pearl button history. In conjunction with the Muscatine County Historical Preservation Commission, Stevens and several other local historians formed the Friends of the Fairport Fish Hatchery. Due to his past experiences, the group elected Stevens as their first president.
Initially, Stevens hoped to restore the pump house and use it as an extension of the National Pearl Button Museum. After efforts to preserve the structure earned it a place on Preservation Iowa’s 2020 Most Endangered Properties list and a public meeting with the Department of Natural Resources to discuss its demolition, the building briefly earned a reprieve in June of 2020. However, its new lease on life proved short lived, as the DNR determined in July that its location in the flood plain made it too difficult and costly to restore and once again slated it for demolition. However, Stevens knew the site still held historical significance and began working with other members of the friends group to find ways to save this history even after the pump house eventually gets torn down.
Since that time, the friends group has developed several shorter term goals for the Fairport Fish Hatchery. These include applying to add the Fairport Fish Hatchery to the National Register of Historic Places, creating an educational pavilion telling the story of the hatchery’s original job of propagating mussels for the pearl button industry and displaying original artifacts, developing an interactive historical trail through the hatchery, and starting research on how to assist with current mussel propagation efforts to improve the Mississippi River’s water quality. In the long term, the friends group hopes to conduct more extensive archeological investigations to learn about the hatchery’s original buildings, add a second trail and link the trails to larger existing bike trails, and work with Mussels of Muscatine, the DNR, and biologist Jeremiah Haas of the Exelon nuclear power plant in the Quad Cities to expand mussel propagation.
As the Friends of the Fairport Fish Hatchery’s projects get underway, they welcome both monetary donations as well as volunteers. The group would especially appreciate assistance with in-kind labor and building material donations for the pavilion, as well as volunteers to help salvage materials from the demolished pump house and create the trails. Anyone wishing to donate in-kind may email Paul Carroll at [email protected], Lynn Pruitt at [email protected], or Stevens at [email protected]. Financial donations to the group should go through the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine. All donations should indicate they go specifically to the Friends of the Fairport Fish Hatchery to ensure the money goes to the proper fund.