“From about 1895 to 1936 Tennessee was one of the nation’s six leading states in marketing pearls,” announces the historical marker on Market St. in Clinton, TN. “Clinton was listed as one of three Tennessee towns known as centers of the pearling industry.”
Clinton sits astride the Clinch River, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was home to 45 different varieties of mussels. “The finest pearls in TN,” said W.R. Cattelle in ‘The Pearl,’ “are found in the fluter, or lake shell, which is the same as the mussel known on the Wabash as the washboard. A yellow shell is found in the Clinch River similar to the mucket of Arkansas, from which pearls are taken.”
Pearls had been routinely hunted on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and their tributaries for many years prior to the outbreak of a ‘pearl rush’ on the Clinch River just before the turn of the 20th century. “The search had been conducted in a moderate way by pleasure parties in the summer and by farmers after the crops had been laid aside,” began an account of the rush in ‘The Book of Pearls.’
Then, in 1899, The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review of Chattanooga reported: “Engineer Hall, in charge of the Government survey of the Clinch and French Broad rivers, while in the city a few days ago for the purpose of leaving the results of the Clinch River survey with Major Kingman, had a number of highly interesting and amusing things to relate in regard to the pearl fisheries in the Upper Clinch River.
“Mr. Hall stated that the populations along the banks of the Clinch are greatly excited over the finding of several large pearls the past year that brought good prices, as well as a large number of other stones of lesser value. As a result farming and husbandry have, to a certain extent, been abandoned by the Clinch River people for pearl hunting.”
The ‘Book of Pearls’ account picks up the thread: “Many [Clinch River] pearls reportedly brought $100 or more. The fact that little experience and no capital were required for the business drew large numbers of persons. Vivid and picturesque accounts published in the local papers reported hundreds of persons as camping at various points along the streams, some in tents and some in rough shanties, and others going from shoal to shoal in newly built houseboats.
“They were described as easy going pleasure loving people, the men women and children working hard all day, subsisting largely on fish caught in the same stream, and dancing at night to the music of a banjo around the camp fires that line the banks.
“The center of the new industry was Clinton, the county seat of Anderson County, whither the successful hunters betook themselves each Saturday, the preferred time for selling the catch.”
The ‘South Jersey Republican’ of Hammonton NJ, offered an in-depth profile of a blind Clinch River pearl hunter in 1908:
“Joseph Gossett, aged 42, of Clinton, Tenn., the center of the great pearl hunting industry, is totally blind, but he hunts pearls as successfully as any of the thousands of mountain people who swarm along the Clinch and Holston rivers looking for pearls.
“Gossett was among the first persons to discover that the Clinch River pearl existed. He was then hardly 21. He sold his first pearl for $50 and after that became an eager pearl hunter.
“While wading in the river he contracted malaria and lost his eyesight, but he did not give up. The next spring found him at the head of a gang of pearl hunters, and he has since been persistent in his work.
“He finds the mussels with his hands or feet by the sense of touch. After gathering a quantity of the bivalves he will sit in his boat and open them, slowing feeling in the shells of the mussel for the pearl.
“No sooner has he found one than he can estimate its value in every particular except as to the color. For this element he trusts his sister, Miss Melinda Gossett.
“He lives in a suburb of the town in a house which he owns. He buys many pearls. He has bought from pearl hunters already this year $5,000 worth of pearl and states that he will handle four times as much before the year has closed.
“’I will go to New York next fall,’ he says. ‘I intend to buy a large stock and go with my sister. I am sure that I would find a ready market instead of dealing with the brokers as I do.’
“Gossett has never married and takes no interest in anything but his profession. He wears a glove on his left hand constantly, as he says that this is his ‘pearl hand,’ meaning that with it he feels pearls when making purchases.”
But the pearl rush couldn’t, and didn’t, last forever. The Tennessee Valley Authority had plans for the rivers of eastern Tennessee that didn’t bode well for the mussel population.
Current day Clinton resident Eddie Stair remembers the tail end of the pearl industry heyday. “There was a shell processing tower, now long abandoned, on the Clinchmore Farm where I grew up,” he says. “It stood on the river bank about 200 yards downstream from the Clinton water treatment plant, across from the current Hammer’s Store location.
“The shells salvaged from the pearler’s trade were sent to button manufacturers and they made very beautiful mother-of-pearl buttons for the fashion industry.
“Norris Dam certainly killed off the pearl industry. Then when Melton Hill Dam was completed, the lower river areas went dry as well, as far as river mussels.
“When the river is down low you can still find some live and huge river mussels though. They’re a protected species now.”
sources: ‘The Pearl, its story, its charm and its value,’ by W.R. Cattelle, JB Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1907
The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review, Chattanooga, TN, Volume 38, 1899
“The Book of Pearls,” by G.F. Kunz & C.H. Stevenson, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1908
“Blind and a Pearl Expert — A Sightless Tenneessean Who Hunts for and Deals in Gems,” South Jersey Republican, Hammonton NJ, May 2, 1908, online at http://www.atlanticlibrary.org/newspapers/sjrepublican/SJR05021908.pdf