Typically, musseling has been a part-time, seasonal occupation to supplement the income of timber workers, farmers, or fisherman living near Tennessee’s great rivers, though it always held the allure of a treasure hunt. Indians of the Woodland Period gathered mussels, principally for food, and left enormous shell middens, or waste heaps.
Beginning in the 1850s the search for freshwater pearls generated bursts of activity in American river towns. In 1914 W. E. Myers reported that a “magnificent pearl . . . probably worth . . . not less than $10,000” had been found on the Caney Fork about 1876 and created the first pearl stir in Tennessee. (1) Searchers attempted pearling on all of Tennessee’s principal waterways, including the Tennessee, Cumberland, Calfkiller, Duck, Elk, Stones, and Obey Rivers. By the mid-1890s, operations on the Clinch River dominated the pearling industry.
John F. Boepple, a German immigrant who had first established the “pearl button” industry in America in 1891, introduced many Tennessee musselers to the commercial value of their discarded shells as button material. Between 1900 and 1920, button factories operated in Knoxville, Clarksville, Memphis, and Nashville. Weber and Sons Button Company operated at Savannah, Tennessee, until the 1980s, even though plastic buttons had essentially replaced shell products by the late 1950s.
In 1947 Japanese pearlers imported a barge-load of Tennessee River mussels for use in the cultured pearl industry. By the 1960s the Japanese market brought a revival of musseling activity, which has continued, with some twelve hundred commercial licenses issued annually.
Historically, shellers took mussels by “toe-digging,” (collecting them by hand in shallow water); “brailing” (dragging strands of knobbed, unbaited hooks across a mussel bed); or shoveling them up with forks, rakes, or dredges. Modern musselers prefer to dive, with the aid of an air compressor and long hose, feeling around the dark river bottom for shells.