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Discovering a historic gem (pearl) in Lake City

Minnesota Prairie Roots
downtown lake cityPhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingA view of downtown Lake City, Minnesota.

DRIVING INTO LAKE CITY on a recent sultry summer afternoon, I expected to learn about water skiing in this Lake Pepin side community which calls itself the birthplace of that water sport.

Lake City sailboatsPhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingLots and lots and lots of sailboats are moored in Lake City.

After all, the popularity of water sports is evident in the sailboats crammed and tethered in the harbor on a weekday, waiting to be unleashed on the weekend.

Lake City anchor sculpturePhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingI wanted to check out the sculpture (an anchor?) along Lake Pepin, but no parking was allowed and the weather was too hot to walk any distance. That’s Wisconsin across the lake. Beautiful scenery here in this busy water sport area.

And around the bend, fancy yachts—at least that’s what I call boats so big that one arrived on a semi—float in the bay. And a bit farther, boaters enjoy a summer afternoon on the lake.

wineglasses and birds in a windowPhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingNautical-themed merchandise perched on a window on the second floor of Treats and Treasures. The “treats” are homemade candy, found downstairs in the treats section.

Offshore, too, you’ll catch the nautical theme of this Mississippi River town in business names and merchandise.

Lake City pearl button façadePhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingA side view of the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co., now an antique store featuring merchandise from some 40 dealers.

But, if you happen to walk into the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company, which is today a place of “the old, odd and unusual,” you will learn the gem of history I found most interesting about Lake City. Dave Close, who along with his wife, Juleen, runs the aforementioned antique store, will educate you about Lake City’s role in making pearl buttons.

It’s fascinating to hear about clammers who once harvested freshwater clams from Lake Pepin, delivering them to the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company and The Wisconsin Pearl Button Company (according to Steve Swan at Swan Jewelers). Both Swan and Close can offer detailed oral histories about local button making.

Clamshells with pearl buttons cut outPhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingThe Closes have this display of clam shells and button blanks in their shop.

According to Close, about 50 percent of the buttons in the world once came from the Upper Mississippi River, north of Ohio. That included Lake City, where factory workers sawed button “blanks” from clam shells before shipping the 50-pound burlap bags of clam shell cut-outs downriver to button finishing houses in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Muscatine, Iowa.

interior sign in lake city pearl buttonPhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingOld photos and more pay homage to this building’s former use as the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co.
clamming bar hooksPhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingNext to the still operating original freight elevator, the Closes have posted vintage photos and other items, including these clamming bar hooks. Note also the beautiful original wainscoting from the building.
Dave ClosePhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingDave Close, co-owner and in-house historian at the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co.

Close has created a mini museum about this side of Lake City’s history behind the counter and in a corner of the 1866 former dry goods store which housed the button company from 1914 – 1920. It is the building’s history and Close’s clear appreciation for that history, which set his business apart from your typical antique shop. You need only notice the clam shells on the counter, the rainbow of buttons secured to his straw hat and the Pearl Button signage, inside and outside, to inquire about the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company.

Pearl ringsPhoto by Audrey Kletscher HelblingTwo freshwater pearl rings crafted by jeweler Steve Swan of Swan Jewelers in Lake City.

Nearby, Swan also honors Lake City’s button past via a display in his jewelry store that includes jewelry he’s crafted from the pearls of freshwater clams. Up until about a dozen years ago, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources halted clamming operations on the river, this jeweler was buying from clammers.

However, the once thriving pearl button making industry ended long before that, in the late 1930s, when plastic buttons replaced pearl buttons, according to Swan.

All of this I learned on a sultry summer afternoon in Lake City, the birthplace of water skiing.

This post was written by  Audrey Kletscher Helbling and originally published on  Minnesota Prairie Roots.

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Comments (1)

Trivia

In 1963 I was in Japan visiting a cultured pearl farm. As our guide explained how cultured pearls are made. What is called a seed is placed in an oysters and two to three years later the seed is covered in pearl. There is more to the process that I have said here but. the point I'm trying to get to was the seed they used was made from Mississippi River clam shell pieces which had been cut into small round pieces. Being about 7,000 miles from home in Minnesota I was surprised to find out they needed something from Minnesota to make cultured pearls.