Clam Fishing on the Wisconsin River

Feb 12, 2020

Few people today associate the Northwoods with pearl buttons, but for a short time, Rhinelander and other Northwoods towns along the Wisconsin River experienced an economic boom similar to that of a small gold rush. Gary Entz has the story in this weeks Northwoods Moment in History.

Most people don’t think too much about the buttons on their shirt.  A button can be manufactured from most anything, including wood, metal, or plastic.  However, for those who consider buttons when thinking about fashion, buttons made of pearl are among the most luminescent and desirable.  Few people today associate the Northwoods with pearl buttons, but for a short time Rhinelander and other Northwoods towns along the Wisconsin River experienced an economic boom similar to that of a small gold rush.

When people think of lustrous mother-of-pearl buttons, if they think about them at all, they assume that they originated in the ocean.  But this isn’t entirely true.  While many do come from the sea, a great number are the products of the glossy inner surface of freshwater mollusk shells.

The business of fishing for clams in order to harvest the shells for buttons started in the southern part of the Wisconsin River sometime around 1888.  There was nothing special about these early efforts until 1901 when someone discovered a genuine pearl worth around $300 in the Yellow River near Dexterville. After that, the rush was on, and the button manufacturing industry expanded into Wisconsin with button plants opening at Fremont and La Crosse.  Tens of thousands of people flocked to Wisconsin waterways in the hope of striking it rich quick.  Little regard was given to ecological concerns and overfishing led to a collapse of the mollusk population.  By 1904 the boom was over.

Manufacturing plants still needed raw materials for buttons, but with the waterways in the south overfished the gathering of mollusk shells returned to what it had been prior to 1901.  By 1917, what was left of the mollusk beds began to play out entirely, and clammers started migrating north.  Then, in 1919, newspapers began claiming that shells from the Wisconsin River were of superior quality to all others and could easily fetch $50 per ton.  This sparked yet another boom, but this time clammers showed up along the banks of the Wisconsin River from Wisconsin Rapids all the way north to McNaughton.  In Rhinelander “The New North” reported that “the Wisconsin River at this point abounds with clam shells and the task of collecting them is by no means difficult.  The shells bring a good price, and during the season the workers realize big returns for their labor.”

When a boom like this gets started, people often have dollar signs in their eyes and fail to see anything else.  Beyond overfishing and completely exhausting their resource in the months between March and July 1919, clam fisherman failed to notice that a new sort of button was starting to appear.  Celluloid buttons were introduced early in the century, and by the 1920s buttons made of Bakelite, which was an early form of plastic, were becoming commonplace.

Mother-of-pearl buttons continued to be made for fancy outfits, but for ordinary clothing Bakelite was cheaper.  This meant that Rhinelander’s great clam rush lasted for less than a single season.