Region 8’s claim to the Pearl Rush

Region 8’s claim to the Pearl Rush
Pearly mussels were nearly depleted by button factories like this one in Black Rock. (Source: North East Arkansas Master Naturalists)
Pearly mussels were nearly depleted by button factories like this one in Black Rock. (Source: North East Arkansas Master Naturalists)
A pearling operation in Newport. The mussels' shells sometimes proved more valuable than the pearl. (Source: North East Arkansas Master Naturalists)
A pearling operation in Newport. The mussels' shells sometimes proved more valuable than the pearl. (Source: North East Arkansas Master Naturalists)
Catherine Jones shared details of mussel training slated for Powhatan Historical State Park. (Source: KAIT-TV)
Catherine Jones shared details of mussel training slated for Powhatan Historical State Park. (Source: KAIT-TV)

POWHATAN, AR - Fresh water mussels may be small, but they play a big part in the history of Arkansas.

"We have one of the most richest mussel histories certainly in the United States," Catherine Jones, a member of the East Arkansas Master Naturalist, said. "Unfortunately, we used them in industry to the point where they're almost extinct. More than half of them are in an endangered status."

This plight and the history behind it is the focus of an educational workshop being held Saturday, July 8 at 10 a.m. at the Powhatan Historical State Park School House.

The program is titled: "Fresh Water Mussels: Their Status Today, and their Great Place in Arkansas History." The program will feature special exhibitions, and an educational presentation on the history, biology and the environmental status of fresh water mussels in Arkansas and the region.

"Native Americans used them in religious purposes and in industrial purposes, too," Jones said. "They were able to excel in their pottery-making because they used the shells as a base."

California had a gold rush; while Arkansas had a Pearl Rush. Few people know that one of the grandest pears of the Royal Crown came from Arkansas, or that Richard Burton bought Elizabeth Taylor an Arkansas pearl in 1969.

"Arkansas has more mussel diversity than anywhere else in the United States," Jones said.

The Pearl Rush began in late 1800's through1903 when Dr. J. H. Myers of Black Rock found a stunning 14 grain pink pearl worth a small fortune for the day. Thousands of mussels were killed to find that perfect pearl, and the remains of the mussel would go to waste.

This spurred the button blank industry utilizing the shell which provided much of the world with buttons through the 1940's when plastic replaced the demand for shell buttons.

"The button industry lasted until about the 1940's when plastic replaced the pearl buttons," Jones explained. "It got a little more complicated. You weren't able to walk the banks and pull out the mussels."

The 1950's introduced more discretionary income and a strand of fine cultured pearls became a must have for many American woman.  De Beers has the monopoly on diamonds, while Mikimoto has the top secret monopoly for culturing the highest quality pearls.  The small round nuclei pellets are needed to seed a fine strand of marine cultured pearls and is predominantly made of Arkansas Mother of Pearl.

Bill Posey, is a 17 year veteran of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission serves as Assistant Chief in Fisheries and oversees the AGFC's Herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), Malacology (mollusk), Non-game biology, as well as the stream biologists, and Stream Team Coordinators will be one of the workshop presenters.

Learn why the least visible, most silent, and most endangered Arkansas inhabitant is worth paying attention to. Workshop participants will gather at the river, and all who are interested are invited to attend.  For a day of additional activities the Powhatan Courthouse has many exhibits on pearling and much more, visit Old Davidsonville Historical State Park featuring the new Visitor Center and Museum, and Lake Charles State Park provides a Nature Center, swimming beach, and fishing.

Copyright 2017 KAIT. All rights reserved.

Watch Region 8 News On Demand: On your Desktop | On your Mobile device

Region 8 News App - Install or update on your: iPhone | Android