Muscatine County, Iowa
Muscatine Journal & News-Tribune
Centennial Edition
31 May 1940

Section 4 - Page 20, Submitted by Charlene Nichols Hixon, April 3, 2012

Button Industry Centers in Muscatine
Abundance of Mussels in Mississippi River
Led to Starting of New Business

For more than half a century now, the button industry has formed the backbone of this city’s industrial life, focusing nation-wide attention on its lustrous title as “The Pearl City” and giving widespread prominence to its well-grounded claim as the center of the freshwater pearl button industry.

Founded at an opportune time when the lumbering business which made up the early major activity in this community, was beginning to wane, the button industry has since poured millions of dollars into the city’s commercial stream.

At the time of the birth of the new industry, Muscatine had a population of only slightly more than 10,000, and much of the growth of the development of the city, both in population and in physical aspects, to its present stature can be traced to the expansion of the button business.

Thousands of persons have found employment in the industry since its founding here, and been paid out by the local factories which also have contributed materially to the tax funds of the community.

Beset in recent years by economic conditions and the competition from cheaper composition products, the local industry has been hard pressed to operate at anything like normal capacity.

Steps, however, are being taken to inject new lifeblood into the business and, with the general civic welfare closely dependent upon the successful operation of the industry, whole-hearted co-operation is assured and revitalization move in which the public may take part.

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It was 52 years ago, in 1888, history records, that John Fred Boepple, the German emigrant whose name is so indelibly linked with the origin of the industry, first made his remarkable discovery that buttons could be cut from the mussel shells which abounded in the Mississippi river near Muscatine.

Beopple, who learned the trade of making pearl buttons from sea shells in his native land, settled in Muscatine in about 1888. A great lover of fishing, he spent much of his leisure time at various haunts along the Mississippi with his pole and line.

It was on one of these fishing expeditions that he first discovered some clam or mussel shells. With the waters of the great Mississippi a storage place for huge quantities of these shells, there came to Boepple the sudden dawn of a vision for applying to the river shells the trade had had previously followed in the old country.

Immediately, he set about building foot power machinery of a crude type, such as he had previously worked with. When it had been completed, he proceeded to cut the first buttons which had ever been made from freshwater mussel shells.

This was an inauspicious beginning of an industry which was to prove the lifeblood for an entire community and which would perpetuate his memory through the ages of time.

* * *

Boepple continued his experiments with his crude tools and after numerous disappointments which he perserveringly would not let defeat his one dominant purpose, he at last succeeded in turning out some polished pearl buttons.

With the ground work laid, the next major problem of the inventor became the securing of the necessary financing. Muscatine was a lively lumber town in those days and not much interested in anything else. Besides, Beopple was a rather uncouth foreigner who did not speak good English, and did not make a very impressive appearance.

He did, however, succeed in lining up a little capital with which to purchase a small amount of equipment to start up a “factory” in the basement of a cooper shop on Cedar street. The factory turned out buttons in a crude, expensive way, but they found a ready market in Muscatine, inasmuch as despite their high cost of production, local merchants could purchase them for about half the price of products of eastern and imported goods.

Up to that time, no freshwater shells had been used in the button industry, most of the buttons being imported, although there were a number of factories in New York and vicinity where sea shell buttons were manufactured.

Some orders were received by Beopple from large wholesalers, and with that all Muscatine seemed to awaken to the realization that a new industry had been born and with it opportunities for the making of fortunes.

* * *

The raw material was as free as the water from the river itself, and there were no restrictions on the taking of mussel shells from the bed of the stream. So, it wasn’t long before hundreds of mean and even women and children literally “jumped” into the business and the Mississippi was dotted with clammers.

Scores of houseboats were built, and on the shores grew large piles of shells. Then, in the fall, when the fishing season was over, little button cutting shops sprung up throughout the city. Every woodshed became a button factory, and in almost any neighborhood could be heard the cheery pop-pop of gasoline engines.

But the to-be-expected reaction set in within a short time to thwart the get-rich-quick dreams of the prospectors. The main reason was that the machines were not properly adapted to the soft freshwater shells. All over town the amateur button-makers were turning out an inferior and largely worthless product. Their lack of suitable machinery, together with the absence of competent operation for the most part, flooded the market with a product that would not sell.

The reaction took its toll, and most of the home button shops reverted to their original uses. The fortune bubble had burst for those who had taken up the business in hopes of getting rich quickly and the responsibility for perpetuating the industry upon a sound basis was left in the hands of a smaller group of local pioneers who saw the real possibilities.

* * *

Henry Umlandt, John Weber, Sr., Fred C. Vetter, Will Bishop, James S. McKee and W. E. Bliven – these were some of the men who ventured into the industry on the ground floor and introducing improved methods of manufacture really launched the production of buttons here on a commercial basis.

It remained for three plumbers and machinists, though, Nick, Pat and Tom Barry, to make this commercial production of freshwater pearl buttons possible.

Viewing the crude equipment being used here in the early days of the industry, they decided they could invent a much better and more efficient machine. Being of a mechanically inventive and determined temperament, they set out to prove this idea to themselves and to a skeptical community.

In the early 80’s, the Barrys announced that they had a machine which would receive the blanks cut from mussel shells and turn them out as finished buttons, ground down and bored for thread.

This was one of the most important milestones in the history of the whole freshwater pearl button industry. The machines proved a success, and to produce them in large quantities for the fast growing local industry, the Barry Manufacturing company was born.

From this point on the growth of the industry was rapid. Large modern factories sprung up and Muscatine earned and continued to maintain its position as the center of the freshwater pearl button industry, turning out more than half of the total output of the United States.

For poor struggling Boepple, though, the success meant nothing but disillusionment, except the realization that his dreams had come true.

As a manufacturer he was gradually becoming impoverished when the button interests saw to it that he was given a position in the Fairport biological station. He died in Muscatine in 1912, ending a life in which the elements of glorious success and tragic failure were closely entwined – his heritage was to bring national recognition and lifeblood to an entire community.

* * * * * * *

The steamer “Middleton,” a fishing boat, arrived on March 28, 1864, with four tons of fish, after a two day cruise on the Mississippi. Some of the fish were exceptionally large. Six pike weighed 132 pounds, or an average of 22 pounds each. The entire catch was disposed of “with a rush” at from two to eight cents per pound.

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First brick paving for Muscatine was ordered on March 29, 1894, to be placed on Mulberry avenue to the fair grounds (now the mad Creek Golf Course), on Second street from Mulberry avenue to pine street and on Iowa avenue from Front to Eighth street.

* * * * * * *

Representative of Industry

Hundreds upon hundreds of Muscatine residents were engaged in the cutting, grinding, finishing and sorting as well as other processes employed in the manufacture of pearl buttons – an industry which gained for this community world recognition – when this representative picture of workers was taken. The staff was a part of the large group employed by the Hawkeye Button company.

Group Photo ~ Names of all the men could not be procured. Among those in the picture are:
First row: C. C. Hagerman, William Leatherman, George Hild, Mr. Prather, Osborn Mills, Ollie Statten, John Carlisle, Tom Powers, Dan Hayes, James Wise.

Second row: Tom Gleason, Mr. Heuer, Marion Keckler, Mr. Pantel, Henry Behrens, Ollie Rachet, Jess Whitney, Elmer Lanfier, Mike Slattery.

Third row: Mr. Vanatta, Mr. Stoneburner, William Tutt, Richard Ludgkee, Harry Hern, Ben Martin, Mr. Brewer, Henry Concannon.

Back row: Henry Hagermann, Ed Dietrich, Frederick Schnider, Mr. Connor, Bert Elliott, Mr. Prather, Dewey Cork, Fred Little, Lew Worley, Ed Dietrich, “Skinny” Hartman and Orval Melton.

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