The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. The ABCs of Lowell History continues with buttons, something that helped fuel the local economy in the early to mid-20th Century. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.
It may be hard to imagine, but at one time, there was a thriving business in Lowell based on freshwater clams harvested from the Flat and Grand Rivers. The shells were highly sought after in the first half of the twentieth century. Why would anyone want the shells? To make buttons, of course!
In 1924, clam boats lined the south shore of the Grand River just west of the bridge. They were flat-bottomed boats with a bar mounted on the back. Wires with hooks were dragged along the river bottom and the clams would clamp onto the hooks. The bar was then raised out of the water and the clams were removed from the hooks. At the end of the day, the clams would be boiled until the shell opened. The shells were then piled and saved until the end of the season.
At first, the season ran from June through August. As more and more mussels were harvested, the season shrank to one month by the end of 1940s. In 1948, Michigan passed a law making it illegal. Typically, four to five tons were accumulated during a month. The Grand River and its tributaries yielded about 50% of Michigan’s clams. There were 600 to 700 licensed clammers working on the Grand River from Portland to Lake Michigan.
The button factory in Lowell was owned by the Gus Liebbe Family (1934-1946) and was located on S. Monroe, just south of Main Street. There, the buttons were drilled from the clam shells with a drill press and sold to clothiers and dressmakers. The factory can be seen in far right of the above picture.
Featured image courtesy of the Lowell Area Historical Museum.