Photos from the White River Valley Chain of Lakes. Some photos are of older resorts, signage and places that are certainly soon to vanish from our midst. Some have already changed.
The impressive county jail was built in 1913: a two-story building that was 30′ wide and 40′ long, with the sheriff’s living accommodations on the second floor. This structure was built near present Shadow Rock Park. Though it is no longer used as a jail, efforts are currently underway for the restoration of the building by the White River Valley Historical Society.
The White River Pearl Industry
With the enthusiasm of the panners during the California Gold Rush, Ozarkians threw themselves into the promise of pearling in the early 1900s. The boom got its start in 1897 when Dr. J.H. Myers of Black Rock on Black River found a fourteen-grain, pinkish-colored pearl. When reports of his find were spread (and exaggerated), would-be pearl hunters swarmed the Black and White Rivers. With the hunters came buyers and speculators, participating in a venture that lasted over 35 years.
The 39 species of mussels in the Black River and upper and lower White River did yield a surprising crop of pearls, and though fewer people struck it rich than hoped to, pearls were a welcomed source of income for many. Some brought $5 to $50 each, while a few even sold for more than $100. Buyers came from outside the area, and some local merchants dealt in the pearl trade. Some large jewelry companies placed ads in area publications, hoping to buy pearls by mail.
Observers of the pearl boom were awed by its egalitarian appeal. One writer recorded his surprise:
I have seen as many as 500 men, women, and children of all sizes and colors on one bar, indiscriminately mingled, wading in as far as they could reach the bottom, some opening, others gathering shells. The wealthiest bankers, lawyers, merchants, doctors, etc., their wives and children, wading in with the poorest darkies, all laughing, singing, working day after day, the summer through.
During a time when a hard-day’s labor brought 50 cents, the lure of pearling appealed to all classes and walks of life. Pearlers dreamed of harvesting that perfect spherical pearl, which would bring them hundreds of dollars.
Of course, most pearlers never found the ideal pearl. They did find plenty of oddly shaped gems, though, known commonly as slugs, nuggets, rosebuds, turtlebacks, and baroques. J.L. Evans, a buyer in Batesville, AR, kept records of his purchases. In 1925, he bought 293 pearls, paying less than $1 each for 99 of them. He gave $1 to $2 each for 115; between $2 and $100 each for 77 of them; and over $ 100 for only two of the pearls he purchased.
Still, Bates would pay when the pearl was right. John McCarroll, who had nine children to support, sold a large pearl for $336 in 1922, a fortune to a struggling Ozark farmer. In 1918, Bates’ ledger records his having bought two pearls for $1,100 (306).
Money made from pearling soared after competition grew between pearl buyers. In 1897, pearling brought in roughly $11,000. By 1903, records indicate that the industry brought in over $125,000.
With the inspired activity of the pearlers came a pile-up of shells. Merchants began shipping the shells to button factories in the north, though the mass of shells it took to produce buttons soon resulted in more practical industry. It took 40 carloads of shells to make one carload of buttons. Soon button companies set up make-shift factories along the White River for cutting blank buttons. These were then shipped to home factories for drilling and finishing.
To accommodate remote regions, companies also sent down-river buyers, who came in midsummer and late fall on flat-bottom boats equipped with portable button extractors, button saws, and storage rooms. These buyers stopped wherever pearlers and shellers had a stock-pile of shells, cutting the buttons and carrying them on to the factory.
After the railroad was completed, shells could be shipped more economically, and the down-river buyers stopped coming. Still, the pearling and shelling industry had brought money into the area. Evans’ ledger records his paying $4 per ton for shells in 1900, selling some of those at a rate of $70 per ton. In 1927, buyers were paying up to $65 a ton.
With the Great Depression, prices dropped to $20 a ton. Though they rose again by 1936 to $33, the pearling and shelling industry had pretty well run its course.
(Ingenthron, Elmo. The Land of Taney: A History of an Ozark Commonwealth. Point Lookout, MO: School of the Ozarks P, 1974.)