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Monday, January 17, 2022

Marvelous mussels: National Pearl Button Museum adds exhibit

Margaret Hurlberthttps://discovermuscatine.com
Margaret Hurlbert works as the Editor of Discover Muscatine Newspaper.

Muscatine Living

MUSCATINE, Iowa–Since its founding, the National Pearl Button Museum @ History and Industry Center has told stories about many aspects of the pearl button industry. From stories of the people who opened the first button shops, to those who worked in them, to the tales of communities near and far that contributed shells and blanks to keep Muscatine’s factories thriving, the museum abounds with accounts of the people who made Muscatine the pearl button capital of the world.

Now, the National Pearl Button Museum has added another story to the larger narrative of the pearl button era, the story of the mussels whose shells made up each of the buttons. As National Pearl Button Museum Director Dustin Joy put it, when it comes to pearl buttons, “probably the most interesting things about them is not how they were made, but what they were made out of–every one was a real, living organism.”

Before their retirements, former National Pearl Button Museum Director Terry Eagle and Office Manager Angie Weikert applied for and received a grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. They initially intended to use it to create an exhibit about mussels at the Fairport Fish Hatchery’s old pump house. However, when the Iowa DNR demolished the building and the Friends of the Fairport Fish Hatchery opted to put together a series of interpretative trails and a historical pavilion, Joy contacted the Carver Trust about using the grant for a new exhibit at the museum instead. “We always had an exhibit on mussels, but I felt it should be expanded,” he explained.

When the museum received permission to reallocate the grant, Joy got to work designing a new exhibit. He started looking for more information about mussels by contacting Dave Bakke and Michelle Berns with the Muscatine County Conservation Board, who directed him to several people with the Iowa Department of National Resources, including Jennifer Kurth. He also worked with Sandy Stevens, Paul Carroll, and Lynn Pruitt of the Friends of the Fairport Fish Hatchery to gather information about the hatchery’s early days as a federal biological station attempting to propagate mussels to sustain the pearl button industry.

Through these efforts, and with the assistance of Edwards Creative in Milan, Illinois, Joy put together his first exhibit. Located near the front of the museum, the exhibit helps visitors understand the life cycles of mussels and how as filter feeders they improve water quality and promote healthy ecosystems. It also examines the negative impact the pearl button industry had on mussels in the Muscatine region and how modern-day efforts to repopulate mussels in the Mississippi River have gotten underway. “We wanted to tell that part of the story,” shared Joy, adding that in historical endeavors that involved natural resources, “there’s always a cautionary tale.”

With the new exhibit on permanent display at the National Pearl Button Museum, located at 117 West Second Street in Muscatine, Joy hopes many Muscatine County residents will come out and learn about this less often examined facet of local history. “I just think a very interesting part of the pearl button story is these animals,” he enthused.

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