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Reflections; Oct 16 Arkansas Pearl Boom started in 1897

I have been reading about the diamonds being found lately in the Arkansas Diamond Mine. As I was reading about the diamonds I remembered a column I had written several years ago about the Arkansas Pearl Boom in 1897. I will share it with you again as I think it is quite interesting.

A few years ago I received a bulletin from Charlie Daniels Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands. I would like to share with you an article from Arkansas Parks and Tourism about the Arkansas Pearl Market.

The Arkansas Pearl “Boom” started in 1897. It peaked a few years later, and the industry had almost vanished by the 1970’s It all started in the spring of 1897, when Dr. J.H. Myers found a pinkish 14-grain pearl in a Black River clam near Black Rock. While his was not the first pearl discovered, Dr. Myers is credited with starting the industry. By the year’s end, hundreds of people were searching the vast mussel beds that lined both the Black River and the White River for 100 miles above Newport.

The “Pearl Rush” was on. Farmers left their crops un-harvested; bankers, lawyers and merchants closed their doors’ and hundreds of families relocated to shanties and tents along the White and Black rivers to participate in the boom that could net a year’s salary in a single day.

During the early years, pearl hunters could wade out to the mussel beds and pick up the shells by the thousands. When the shallow beds were gone, other devices were brought in to bring the mollusks up. Long handled tongs, that could grasp shells up to fourteen feet, were popular; along with crows foot drags, a series of wire hooks to which mussels attached themselves when the boat mounted rig passed over a mussel bed.

At first the mussel shells were discarded by pearlers. But by 1899, the shells were being shipped by rail to northern factories where they were fashioned into buttons. During the first three years industry sales pumped almost $1.5 billion into Lawrence, Jackson, Independence, Randolph and Woodruff counties. Soon pearl and shell hunting extended downstream to Augusta, De Arc, Clarendon and beyond.

In 1900 the first shell button company in the south opened at Black Rock. Actually the little factory cut button “blanks” from shells and shipped them via rail to finishing plants in other states. Eventually, button factories were opened at Newport, Batesville, Newark and other towns along the river. Plastic buttons destroyed the industry during the 1940’s but the demand for mussel shells continued for foreign markets.

A procedure developed during the 1920’s in Japan, China, Australia and other countries brought a need for shell beads, which are implanted into oysters and later harvested as cultured pearls. That market remains today.

Dr. Myers was not the first to discover pearls in Arkansas. Native American Indians used them as personal decorations long before Europeans arrived on the scene and pioneers sometimes carried them as good luck charms or gave them to children as playthings.

Colorful “rags-to –riches” stories were often reported in publications of the period. New homes, farms, and other major purchases were finalized in cash by lucky pearl prospectors during the early years of this century. Sometimes pearls were found in the strangest places. A Lonoke County man reportedly uncovered a cache of gems while digging postholes in an old channel of the Cypress Bayou.

Perhaps the most intriguing of all pearling stories happened in 1902 when a super–quality gem was found inside a large, rough mucket shell upstream from Black Rock. After a round of bidding by dealers, a local jeweler purchased the gem and hand carried it to St. Louis, New York and on to Parks, where it was sold for a pricey sum and reportedly became part of the British Royal collection.

The Gemological Institute of America classified the White River as one of the top seven freshwater pearl streams in the United States. The Book of the Pearl, first published in 1908 and considered the finest history ever written on the subject, stated that the White River region has improved to be the riches pearling region in America.

The Arkansas anthem, first adopted in 1917, includes the words, “Tis a land full of joy and sunshine, rich in pearls and diamonds rare.”

As I was reading this I began to reflect back to the early 1940’s when I had a step-aunt whose son lived in Augusta. She asked me to go with her to visit her son, and being a young teenager I was anxious to go explore new territory. Much to my surprise he was one of the boat people who lived on the White River. There were a number of boat people living along the river banks. We spent the day riding the boat while they were dragging the river for mussels. I was too young to be too interested in why they were so busy hunting for the mussels except I was told they were used to make buttons. I never heard about the pearls. I enjoyed the day spent on the “House Boat” riding slowing down the river, but I was sure glad we spent the night in a hotel in town, such as it was at that time. That was my first time to spend the night in a hotel and I was scared to death, but I would have been more afraid if we had spent the night on the house boat. I had no idea that I observed a part of Arkansas Pearl History being made. The next time I walk along a river bank I am going to be looking for pearls.

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