Riches in the Minnesota River

Georgia "Jo" Schultz

     It has been awhile since anyone made a living by working the Minnesota River.  Back in 1901, some enterprising young men went pearl hunting.  This was one of the chief industries along the Minnesota River from the mouth of the Blue Earth River to the west.  By dragging the bottom of the stream, a large number of clams were dredged up and from some a large, well-shaped pearl was extracted.  It took a lot of work, but for a time pearl hunting was a livelihood for some people.

     The clam industry prospered in Judson after World War I.  It was small, but did have commercial value.  The stream was unpolluted then and many species of clams existed in teeming numbers.  Whether fried, roasted or boiled, the eating of clams was unpalatable so clam seekers threw them to the turtles and catfish.  Two Goodell brothers built a large, wide and deep flat-bottomed scow to hold their catch.  They fashioned 10-foot clamming bars with multiple triple hooks that were dragged over the river bottom.  The hooks were made of heavy gauge wire and were not sharp.  A rope harness raised and lowered the hooks. 

     Clams rest on the river bottom with their shells partly open.  So when the hooks dragged just above the bottom, they caught the shell, which promptly closed.  When the scow was loaded with clams, it returned to the river bank where a stock tank held river water and was balanced over a fire.  The clams were pitched into the hot water where they lost their muscular strength and the shell opened.  Each clam was checked for pearl formations of various sizes and shapes.  A few perfect pearls were found.  The rest were called slugs. 

     At the end of the season the pile of clam shells was so huge it was hauled to railroad cars with a destination of Muscatine, Iowa, where pearl buttons were stamped out of the shells in a button factory.  Today, we understand what the expression means, “Clam up”!

     In addition, Mankato had a “moment on stage” as the result of local entrepreneur Armin Kleinschmidt’s idea that canned carp could provide a delicious and valuable food source during WWII.  Once a popular immigrant food source, today carp is considered by some a valuable recreational and food resource and by others a pest and a danger to the environment.  In his book called “The Multifaceted Carp — Mankato's Moment on the Stage,” author Henry Quade discusses the environmental impacts and entrepreneurial ventures of the carp.  The book is available at the Blue Earth County Historical Society.

     History will find, however, that Blue Earth County was much better positioned to be a source of agricultural products than seafood!