March 04, 2009 Edition

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Banquet attendees hear
presentation about NEA
pearling and shelling industry

Dr. Tom Dillard (from left), guest speaker at the Lawrence County Historical Society Banquet, visits with Dr. Jerry Gibbens and Lloyd Clark on Saturday evening.
Submitted Photo ~ Catherine Richey

Catherine Richey
Contributing Writer

The Lawrence County Historical Society Banquet was held Saturday evening in the Lawrence County Meeting Room on West Walnut Street in Walnut Ridge.

Approximately 50 were in attendance for the barbecue dinner and to hear Dr. Tom Dillard of the University of Arkansas Library, Special Collections, speak about the pearling and shelling (button making) industry in Northeast Arkansas.

His talk compared the 1897 to 1903 pearling frenzy to the gold rush that had just passed in the Klondike. People came from many places to "find their fortune" by gathering the mussel shells from the rivers and streams of Arkansas. Not many got rich, according to Dillard, though some very beautiful pearls were found.

Dr. Dillard quoted from newspaper articles in The New York Times dated Sept. 1897 about pearling in the Helena area.

The big rush for pearls played out, and later the shells themselves were the commodity for sale. Button makers in the north had used up almost all their shells and were looking for a new source, so the shells, or rather the blanks cut from the shells, were sold to manufacturers who polished and finished the buttons. That is why sometimes individuals will still find an old shell with about dime-size holes cut from it somewhere around the former pearling sites.

Many were at one time used to mark the tops of graves when the families could not afford a tombstone. I remember seeing graves totally covered with these shells with holes in them.

Even today, shells are still taken from the Black River and many of them are cut up and used as seed pearls to be implanted in shells in pearl farms in Japan and other places where cultured pearls are 'grown.'

The Randolph County Heritage Museum and the Black Rock Historical Society and Museum loaned displays of photos and mussel shells for the evening.

Lesia Phillips provided the table decorations, which carried out 'A Pearl of a Past' theme. Janai Powell of Powhatan performed two pieces on the violin.

Harold Johnson and Carolyn Propst, with the Wings of Honor Museum, presented Dr. Dillard with a book about the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School at the Walnut Ridge Airbase.

The historical society thanks Dr. Dillard and his wife, Mary, for their very nice presentation about this part of our local history.

A short business meeting was held following the banquet for any who chose to stay longer. The next meeting will be March 17 at 7 p.m. in the Lawrence County Meeting Room and everyone is welcome. Some new members have joined, and anyone interested is welcome.

There are still copies of the Lawrence County Heritage Books available for $55, plus $5 postage if they are mailed. Also some back issues of the Quarterlies are available for $5 each. Call to see if the one you need is available.

To order any of these, the address is Lawrence County Historical Society, P.O. Box 93, Powhatan, AR 72458. For more information, call Lloyd Clark at 870-878-6555, Phillips at 870-878-6639 or Catherine Richey at 870-878-6863.

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