Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mississippi Pearls and a Car Biding Its Time on the Ice 'til Spring

My grandparents Laura and Walter Arnold lived in Wabasha, MN while I was a child in the 70s. Their house was made of brick and was over a hundred years old. It was huge to my young eyes, with high ceilings and a wide stairway with a wooden banister, which I loved to slide down on my stomach (the steps, not the banister). This house was (still is, actually) located about a block away from the Mississippi River, and I’d often take walks down to the shore and collect agates and other interesting rocks. My favorite finds were always the hole-punched clam shells along the shore, which had been used and long since discarded by button-making factories upriver. In fact, this particular industry only lasted ‘til the 1930s, when plastic buttons became all the rage...or at least cheaper to make. I collected shoe-boxes full of these shells with the neat button-sized holes punched out. Not sure what I ever did with them.

Anyway, it was many years later that I was doing some online research, trying to find if there was info about the source of these discarded shells; what companies had used them, where they were located, etc. I don’t think I found any direct info about them*, but that internet search led me to info about Mississippi pearls. I’d never heard of these before, and had always thought pearls were something that came from the sea. But nope, people used to harvest the freshwater clams of the Great River for the pearls inside them, as well as for the shells.

At about the same time I found out about the Mississippi pearl, I was trying to recall something from childhood. I remembered that there was a lake we’d often drive by in the winter between Lake City and Wabasha, and sitting on top of the ice would be an empty car. People could bet on the date when they felt the vehicle would finally crash through the thawing ice into the water. It was one of those memories where I wasn’t quite sure if it was something real I had seen or had merely dreamt about it. So I called the Wabasha County Historical Society. No one seemed to have heard about this until they put me in touch with an old-timer whose name I can’t recall. He said, yeah, they used to do that on Russian Lake**, and they secured a cable to it so that it would be easy to retrieve come spring.

It was that combination of things – the pearls and the car on ice – that sparked my story Mississippi Pearl. It’s one of my favorite stories, and it won Oceanview Publishing’s first annual short story contest. I also used it as my writing sample for the 2010 MN Artist Initiative Grant which I received in – um – 2010.  It is part mystery, part horror, part family drama, and is also part of my collection Bait & Other Stories. I hope you’ll get a chance to read it sometime.


* Now a Google search leads me to a bunch of sites that talk about the Mississippi pearl button industry. There’s even a museum dedicated to it in Muscatine, Iowa.

** Can’t find any mention of a Russian Lake online, so not sure if the name has since been changed, or it’s too small to bother listing. In my memory the lake was quite small.

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