Butler County was formed from Wayne County on February 27, 1849. Butler County became important for many reasons, one of which was the amount of waterways that flow through the county. The largest river, Black River, was named by the French as, "La Riviere Noire," or Black River.
Butler County 1930s
Mussel Shell Digging
The Great Depression was hard on everyone, many Southeast Missourians found creative ways to make ends meet, in Butler County, one way was to harvest mussel shells. During the Depression, the prices paid for mussel shells plummeted like everything else, but at $20 (previous decades had realized $40-$60 at ton a ton, the money was still worth hunting for them. The hunter would wade the river towing his boat behind him constantly spying the bottom of the river looking for the "eye" or opened part of the shell that would always be found sticking upward. A sharp stick usually with a wire connected on the end would be quietly lowered to the bottom and inserted into the "eye" at which time the shell would clamp onto the wire allowing it to be raised into the boat. On a good day, a mussel shell hunter could harvest four pounds of mussels a day (August 11, 1932, Poplar Bluff Republican).
Digging for mussel shells in the Black River was not a new profession during the Great Depression. Ever since the late 1800s and early 1900s, locals hunted the shells which were used to make buttons and fine handled knives. Sometimes, if a hunter was lucky, they might run across a pearl. Depending on the quality and color of the pearl, it might fetch the finder several hundred dollars to over two thousand dollars. The record price fetched for a Black River Pearl was $2,500 for 150 grain pearl found by the Fry brothers from West Plains (History of Butler County).