With the pearl rush of 1864, farmers abandoned their fields, merchants shuttered their stores and the Winooski River teemed with neighbors and strangers as many sought to strike it rich in the waters near East Montpelier.
C. Hinkley Stevens started it all when he waded into the river behind the East Montpelier Post Office to retrieve a large freshwater mussel that he had spied from the riverbank. Without realizing it, he triggered a short-lived boom that would leave its mark for decades. An account in the Barre Daily Times elaborated:
"Mr. Stevens went back of the post office one afternoon and found an extra large clam. It measured nearly eight inches in length. On opening it he found a large pearl. It did not take long for the news to travel. In a remarkably short span of time, men, boys and even women left their work to go to the Winooski river to look for clams, for clams meant pearls. Business men neglected their trade in order that they might be lucky in getting a big pearl."
H.B. Ramsdell, father of the owner of the Barre newspaper, found one that he sold for almost $1,000. L. Bart Cross, of the famous Cross Cracker Baking Company, owned one worth $800 that was found in the river near Middlesex, and Annette Upham, of Barre, had a necklace of Winooski River pearls that was valued at $5,000.
Stevens had sold his gem for $500 — a value of more than $7,500 in today’s currency. It was a scenario that had precedent. In 1857, a large pearl was discovered near Paterson, New Jersey, by David Howell, a shoemaker who relieved the tedium of his life by fishing in Notch Brook. One spring afternoon he gathered a “mess of mussels” from Notch Brook to fry for dinner. As he plucked the bivalves from the cooking grease he discovered a large pearl weighing nearly 400 grains. George Kunz in his 1897 treatise on freshwater pearls noted:
"It became known as 'The Queen Pearl' and was sold by Tiffany and Company to the Empress Eugenie of France for $2,500. Today it is worth four times that amount. The news of this sale created such an excitement that search for pearls was started throughout the country. The mussels at Notch Brook were gathered by the million and destroyed, often with little or no result. Howell searched for other mussels, and his example was followed by his neighbors. Within a few days a magnificent pink pearl was found by a Paterson carpenter named Jacob Quackenbush. The pearl weighed 93 grains, and was bought by Charles Tiffany for $1,500."
As word of the discovery spread, fortune-seekers took to the rivers throughout the eastern half of the country to exploit the bounty teeming in their waterways. Many, like outdoor writer Sara Muller, waded in rubber boots in late summer or early fall when the water was low. “Then,” she noted, “the water is apt to be clear and the mussels can be easily seen.” She also enjoyed gliding through the shallows in a canoe and reaching over the side to easily pluck the bivalves from the bottom. While Muller took mussels from southern Vermont lakes and streams, a different method was employed in the Winooski near Montpelier. Mrs. Rowland E. Robinson, in The American Agriculturalist for May 1873, described the fishery upstream from the Capital City:
"It seems that in this country fresh-water pearls are found most abundantly in the Winooski River in Vermont, not far from its source and in small tributaries. The clams were once found in any part of the river, but they have been hunted so much they are more usually found in deep water alone.
The instruments necessary for pearl hunting, as it is commonly called, are an iron rod, flattened at one end, with barbs cut in it to draw out the clams, a handled basket to carry them in, a stout knife to open the shells, and a box of fine cotton in which to put the pearls."
The pearl hunter was further advised to carry an umbrella to mitigate the reflection of the sun on the water’s surface. The hunter thrust the flattened point of the iron rod into any shell spied on the bottom and, as the mussel closed its shell and fastened on the barbed point, he pulled it in and placed the mollusk in the basket.
"When satisfied with the number he has got, he carries them to the bank where he sits down and opens them. Often thousands of shells are opened and the inmates destroyed without obtaining a single pearl."
One usually smelled the rotting pile of mussels well before seeing the pearl fishers at their grisly work.
For her article in the Agriculturalist, the wife of famed Vermont author Rowland Robinson interviewed C. Hinkley Stevens, the East Montpelier postmaster whose discovery launched the pearl rush on the Winooski. Interestingly, Stevens, like his counterpart in New Jersey, listed his occupation as shoemaker. Stevens was described as “one of the most successful pearl fishers of that region and the one who some years ago found the largest pearl that has been discovered in the United States.” Stevens described how he had found that mussel “in two feet of water where it ran swift. The pearl is 5/8 of an inch in diameter, round as a ball, and of fine luster. It is now owned by a gentleman in New York City.”
In 1903 two Plainfield boys, Neal Knapp and George Henry, brought to Barre pearls they had found near their home and sold them, according to the Barre Daily Times, for several dollars. The June 6 newspaper reported:
"The two boys have been hard at work for two weeks of pearl fishing. On Thursday they discovered a large one, as big as a pea, round and with good color. The fact that the boys have succeeded in getting a few pearls recalls the days when pearl fishing was the main object of half of the people of Plainfield as well as in Montpelier. This was just after the close of the Civil War. The older men in town have many stories to relate about the large pearls that were found then. The fishing was conducted all that summer but, as nearly all the clams, both large and small were hauled out of the river, the craze died out and regular business resumed. While it did last it seemed as if the people would go wild in their endeavors to get even a single pearl. People from all over the state came to Montpelier and East Montpelier. They came from other states and all had a desire to get rich quick."
The freshwater pearl mussel has been exploited by humans for centuries. The early settlers in Montpelier found shell middens when clearing the land for planting, indicating the presence of Abenaki camps along the river where the tribe gathered the bivalves for food. And although modern palate is not pleased with the taste of these mussels, prehistoric shell heaps throughout the United States testify to the mollusk as a mainstay of the Indian diet.
The mussels, sometimes mistakenly called clams, have an interesting life history. They are bivalves (Margaritifera margaritifera) that are among the longest living of all invertebrates with many examples well over 100 years old. One in Estonia was reported to be 134 years old. It has modest mobility with a “foot” that permits it to slowly move and even bury itself on the river bottom. With a hinged shell, it somewhat resembles the soft-shell steamer clams that are harvested in the mud-flats of Maine. Freshwater pearl mussels may be found in Europe and eastern North America.
During the pearl booms in the 19th century, excessive hunting depleted their numbers in areas where they were easily accessible. By 1902, according to The New York Times, the pearl fisheries had, for all practical proposes, been depleted.
In recent years environmental degradation has had the most lasting consequences. Pollution and other threats to the host fish species, especially rainbow and brown trout, have had deleterious outcomes, interrupting the larval phase of the mussel’s life cycle.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, pearl booms occurred in the eastern half of the United States — from the Adirondacks in the 1890s to aptly named Mussel Shoals, Alabama, in the 1990s, and, eventually, a use was found for the discarded shells. They were turned into buttons.
Manufacturers of pearl buttons, a long-standing attribute of 19th and early 20th century fashion, paid from one to two dollars a hundred for mussel shells. Eventually, mother-of-pearl buttons were replaced with plastic, and the mussel fisheries, once rife with the promise of fortune, faded from memory.
Today, according to Vermont Fish and Game biologist Jon Kart, most species of freshwater mussels are threatened or endangered and a permit is required to harvest them. He adds, “We hope that people will give all mussels a break and not bother them.”