Broken bricks, shattered large clay tiles and thin strips of lumber nailed into a crimped piece of sheet metal, sit piled down a county road in Hillsdale. Covering this pile of rubble are pieces of a large tree that became uprooted in a storm less than two years ago. It’s not often a blighted piece of property can tell us a lot about Indiana’s history, but if one looks closely, tangled in the tree roots are small shells, some fragmented and some whole. The shells are not remnants from a family vacation on the coast; rather they were picked up less than a mile away in our sometimes overlooked Wabash River and used in what was once a button factory that sat on the property of Henry Cobb.

On Indiana 36, just before 9 on a Saturday morning, the parking lot at Joe’s café in Montezuma starts to fill up. In the center of the room are three tables butted up against each other. As the clock winds closer to 10, the level of conversation elevates from catching up on weekly news to reminiscing about the good ol’ days. The dinner table topic on this day was Cobb’s button factory from the mid-1900s. Sitting at the table was 70-year-old Larry Southard, who says spending your day on the river was the way of life back then.

“All of us kids musseled for the bait. You would just hang to one side of the boat, drift through the mud bars, feel them with your feet and bring them up to the boat. We would take a knife, much like opening an oyster, and take out the mussel meat,” Southard said.

The mussels were used for more than bait. Brant Fisher, Indiana Department of Natural Resources Nongame Aquatic Biologist, said people — as far back as Native Americans — would eat mussels out of the Wabash River.

“A lot of times you can still find middens, large piles of old shells. A lot of the studies conducted show middens were associated with old Native American villages. Basically they were like their garbage dump in the village,” Fisher said.

Some recorded stories tell of people walking across the Wabash River on mussels in certain spots. Those areas are what people would think of as a true mussel bed, an area thick with live mussels.

A booming button industry

Many species of mussels were plentiful in the Wabash River at the end of the 19th century when it was discovered they could be used to make buttons for the new, ready-to-wear clothing industry. Freshwater mussel shells were a cheaper and higher quality source than saltwater shells. This led hundreds of local river-town residents to become part of the mussel industry and produce button blanks in button factories along the river, like Cobb’s in Hillsdale.

“My dad would collect the shells by the five-gallon bucket,” Southard said. “I remember stopping by Henry Cobb’s and he would give us boys fifty cents to a dollar for a bucket of them. I remember Henry running the shells on a belt and puncturing holes in them. He had a bucket sitting on the floor he would put them in.”

Turning mussels into pearls

According to the U.S. Department of Interior 1906 Mineral Resource Guide, the value of the production of pearls was about $500,000. The production of pearls from the Wabash River was conservatively estimated between $100,000 to $150,000. Buyers and dealers from New York to Paris would visit the Wabash Valley during pearl-gathering season. In many cases pearls changed hands two or three times before appearing in the gem markets. A freshwater mussel is virtually made up of the same material as an oyster pearl: a dense mix of calcium carbonate and proteins called nacre. To enhance the freshwater pearls created in the Wabash River, they were shipped to Japan.

“If you look at the side of a fresh mussel shell, it is real bright mother of pearl coloration. What they do is cut the shell down into a small cube and grind it down to look like a pearl. Then they would artificially insert that into a pearl oyster and leave it there for a year or so and harvest it back out. In that one year’s time the pearl oyster would lay down a thin layer of its own nacre, producing a lustrous marketable pearl,” Fisher said.

“There was a large market for turning mussels into pearls. My mother had a couple rings that my dad had made which had pearls the size of a pea, made from freshwater pearls that came from mussels,” Southard said.

Depletion of gems

The U.S. 1906 Mineral Resource guide called for laws to be passed to prohibit the gathering of shells and pearls in order to preserve them before the deposits would become depleted. The demand for pearl buttons and freshwater pearls was so great that by the mid-1950s the Wabash River was fished out. It wasn’t until 1991 when the harvest for mussel shells was closed.

“All mussels are protected. You cannot go out and harvest or take mussels from our streams or rivers. That actually includes [that] you can’t even take an old shell that you find. All shells and live mussels are protected. It is illegal to take or possess any mussel shell,” Fisher said.

What happened to the mussels?

Fisher says there are many contributing factors as to why the mussel population has diminished. For starters, water pollution over the years has taken a toll on the mussels. Mussels are filter feeders, which constantly filter water. Chemicals in the water could have contributed to the extinction of some of the mussel species. In addition, a lot of non-point pollution sediment leaked into streams, which emptied out into the river. Because mussels are filter feeders they need a clean surface (or a substrate) to bury down into. A lot of silt and non-point pollution could have smothered out the mussels in certain areas. Undoubtedly, the over-harvests during the button and pearl era had a negative effect. Furthermore, the placement of dams changed their living environment.

“The Ohio River is a good example of that,” Fisher said. “Now it is a series of dams to allow for barges to travel up and down the Ohio River. It changed the environment the mussels were living in. Instead of shallow, well-oxygenated riffles, they turned the Ohio River into deep water. Certain species can’t adapt to that." Dams also block fish movements. Mussels rely heavily on fish as part of their reproductive cycle. Freshwater mussels have an unusual and complex mode of reproduction, which includes a brief obligatory stage as a parasite on a fish. Moreover, a lot of the rivers have been channelized and dredged. When dredging occurs, residue from the bottom is pulled out and dumped on the bank. Because mussels live in the substrate, a lot of mussels could have been taken out of the river that way, too. Because of the above-mentioned reasons, 20 of the 77 mussel species have been lost.

“I don’t think anyone had an idea of how many mussels we actually had. We still have a lot of mussels in certain areas but it is not even comparable to what we used to have. I can’t even imagine what it used to look like,” Fisher said.

Reintroducing the forgotten

The Indiana DNR is conducting surveys all over the state to document what mussels remain and what used to be here. An interesting factoid about mussels is that even after they have died, their shells remain. This allows researchers to survey a stretch of the river and find five to 10 species alive, but then find 10 to 20 other species that used to be present. The shells are a good indication of the distribution of some of the species across the state.

The DNR is producing maps of what the distribution is and what it potentially was for the entire state. Fisher said the diversity of mussels that were around in some places is incredible. Starting this year the DNR will begin to reintroduce mussels in Tippecanoe, Pulaski and White counties.

“I think it is important to know that the things we do in our environment can impact a lot of other things, not just the warm and fuzzy things we see every day. There are a lot of other things out there that are a part of our environment that we may overlook on a day-to-day basis while we are living our lives,” Fisher said.

Southard believes current conservation efforts have already begun to make a difference.

“I think the mussels are coming back. Last summer, I found some big pink mussels raccoons must have drug up on the bank and opened. That was the first big mussel shells I have seen in 12 years, so hopefully they are coming back,” Southard said.

St. Anne Shell Chapel

Intact old button factories sprinkled along the Wabash are far and few between these days. While only punctured shells on the shore remain, there is one place folks can visit to grasp how many shells were once here, and that is St. Anne Shell Chapel at St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

“People who come around here say ‘I want to see the Shell Chapel’. It is the oldest place on campus,” archivist and Sister Marianne Mader said.

The Shell Chapel was erected shortly after St. Mary-of-the-Woods was founded in 1840. The story is spoken that the settlers were running out of money, so Saint Mother Theodore Guerin decided to go back to France to solicit funds for their mission. After much perseverance they received enough money to continue their mission. On her return trip to America, a storm arose that overturned the ship. Although the captain gave up all hope, Guerin implored St. Anne for her powerful protection and promised to erect a chapel in her honor should they survive. The story continues that almost immediately a strong wind set the ship upright.

A few months after Guerin returned, she took steps to fulfill her promise to St. Anne. A small chapel was built of logs in 1844. Over the course of three decades, the logs began to give way. In 1875 the original chapel was replaced by one with a stone structure. While the exterior isn’t much to look at, the interior walls are covered with iridescent shells, pressed into plaster, carried by foot from the Wabash River. The shells are designed in many fashions, including in the depiction of the Holy Trinity, a beautiful floral design, a Roman arch and the ship Guerin sailed on.

“I always had a hard time with this story. I never saw anything that looked like shells in the Wabash River. I never saw anything that looked like [something that] someone could go down there and walk on as Mother Theodore wrote about,” Mader said.

This historic time in Indiana’s past has been encapsulated at the Chapel, perhaps as a reminder of what once was, and what could be.

“I think the river is going back to more like what Mother Theodore saw, because there weren’t all these humans out there throwing debris into the river,” Mader said. “I don’t think they would have done that anyway. They lived very close to nature and I think that is what we have been trying to do here too, is live closer to nature.”

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at

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