MUSCATINE — The story of the pearl button industry in Muscatine is much like a button itself, its circular and when properly polished, will shine.
"If you polish this history like a pearl, people will come."
That's the advice director Terry Eagle got from his father in-law and it's what he hopes to accomplish when the museum opens for regular hours March 1 under the new name the National Pearl Button Museum at the Muscatine History and Industry Center.
Eagle is passionate about the story he has to tell and he's ready to tell it on a national level. Muscatine's pearl button history has been told as a local story, but Eagle has found it's really not one confined to the state.
"The story is a national growth story, a national treasure story," he said.
Over his seven years working at the museum, Eagle has learned about the prevalence of the industry that centered in Muscatine.
For about 75 years starting in the late 19th century, the pearl button industry was rooted in Muscatine where it came to be known as the Pearl Button Capital of the World. The industry, brought to Muscatine in 1891 by German immigrant John F. Boepple, was "the gold rush of the Midwest," Eagle said. He equated Muscatine to Sutter's Mill, the site in California where prospectors from across the country flocked to try to find their fortune.
By 1905, Muscatine was making 1.5 billion pearl buttons annually using mollusk shells — clams and mussels — from the Mississippi and other rivers in the Midwest. Eagle said button blanks, or the circular pieces cut from shells, were sent to Muscatine from 19 states during that time then finely cut and polished into buttons.
The drive for pearl buttons came down to image. Pearl buttons on clothing were status symbols and commodities that brought in high profits. Muscatine's population was around 18,000 at the time and nearly two-thirds were making a living through the button industry by working in button factories, collecting shells or working on the machinery to make buttons.
Pearls were a bonus find of the pearl button process and had its own history at the time. Eagle said "pearl agents" would hang around local bars, saloons and hardware stores looking for residents selling pearls. When they found those with a good crop to sell, they would call "pearl brokers" who would come to town and buy them. Some people could make a living off of finding and selling pearls, and others could supplement their income.
As the market of much less expensive plastic buttons rose, the pearl button industry faded away and other industries took its place. Those industries will still be represented at the museum even though the pearl is advertised as the hook to lure visitors to town, much like the hooks used to draw clams out of the river.
Booths with information about history and leadership of Bayer, Kent Corporation, HNI, Muscatine Power and Water, Musco Lighting, Stanley Consultants and Carver Pump are on display on the second floor of the museum along with a newly developed event space. When the museum hosts an official ribbon cutting March 8, the band Flash in a Pan from Iowa City will perform in that space.
When deciding to change the name, Eagle consulted with the businesses said he valued the investments Muscatine's major employers have made to the community and the museum. He intends to guide museum visitors through the "pearl pipeline" to see each company as a development from the workforce brought to Muscatine by the pearl button boom. Donations from those companies account for 40 percent of the museum's budget, with the other 60 percent coming from members, donors and friends of the museum.
Eagle said he heard from visitors the museum was difficult to find under the name Muscatine History and Industry Center home of the Pearl Button Museum.
The museum has had visitors from all over the world last year. People from 43 states including Washington D.C. and 15 countries came to the museum during a stop in Muscatine, usually on their way along the Mississippi River. By giving the museum top billing, he hopes to increase tourism.
He also warned digging up mussels in the river isn't a great idea. People shouldn't disturb the bivalves living in the Mississippi or other rivers for pearls, he said, because chances are, they're not going to find one.
"One in one thousand animals may have a pearl in it," he said.
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They are also important to the environment and some are protected. Mollusks filter the water around them and may actually clean their aquatic habitats in large numbers and local efforts have been made in recent years to study and return the animals to their native environments to thrive.
Eagle said the museum is trying to provide a story of American growth "that was very damaging itself to the environment, but needed for the growth of the country, and then bring it full circle to where we now start to celebrate this creature as something that's very good for the environment."
For Eagle, the story of his connection to the pearl button industry is also circular.
As a child growing up in Southend, he would skip shells in the river, and as a Muscatine firefighter he hated them because when children found shells with button blanks cut out of them, they would get them stuck to their fingers and he would have to chip them away.
Eagle married into the McKee family of the McKee Button Company in the 80s. The company was the finishing plant for pearl buttons during the industry boom and had locations in other towns in other states that would cut button blanks from shells then send them back to Muscatine.
He said he and his wife moved into a home on East Mississippi Drive that overlooks the river. When his mother came to the house to visit for the first time, he said she cried.
"She was born in this shantytown," he said pointing to a hanging photograph of lean-to buildings on the banks of the Mississippi surrounded by shells. In another photograph of a group of men hired to collect shells, Eagle pointed out his uncle.
After retiring from the fire department, Eagle worked in maintenance at the museum. He became director last year and since then, has pushed to make the museum Muscatine's no. 1 attraction.
"There was a reason I was put here," he said. "And I believe that was to bring this history up to a state significant story and a national treasure story."
There are more projects Eagle wants to work on including installing a kiosk on the second floor with information on some of Muscatine's famous residents including Alexander Clark, Mark Twain and Norman Baker.
He also wants to save a building at the Fairport Fish Hatchery to have as an information center about local wildlife including mussels and clams. With the building, he said people could visit stops all along the river up to Dubuque.
"We need these things to get people to understand the Mississippi now is a tourism corridor," he said.
Throughout his work, Eagle is trying to promote history.
"I do have passion for this because the good that it could do for my hometown I feel is huge," he said.
There is no fee to visit the museum, but donations are always accepted and appreciated, Eagle said.
And after a visit, he said people will walk away with "clam good luck."