MY TENNESSEE RIVER PEARL

My Tennessee River pearl was found in a tub of cooked mussel meats headed home with Mama to be used as hog food. It was 1945, soon after my brother, Dale, was killed in action by German artillery fire in the Battle of the Bulge in December of ’44. Mama was in need of a distraction. To fill that need, she joined other women who were cooking mussels in vats on the river bank to separate the live mussels from their shells. 

The cooking was done where Standing Rock Creek flowed into the Tennessee River not far from my home. We lived in an old two-story farm house about two miles up the creek. Neighborhood men who lived near the river were musseling for shells to sell to Japanese buyers. This was a rather lucrative business during those post World War II times.

Several men, each in his homemade four by twelve-foot, flat-bottomed wood boat, powered by a one-cylinder gasoline engine, would get on the river early in the morning. Each boater would go to where the known mussel beds were, and drag his multiple hooks over the mussel beds. When the live mussels, lying open, felt the hook, they reacted by clamping shut on it.

Each boat was rigged with a fore-to-aft brail, or metal pole, on either side. The brail, when raised, rested on two upright standards. When lowered, it sank toward the river bottom with its multiple wire hooks attached. The boat was maneuvered to the right spot and allowed to drift quietly over the live mussel beds to capture the mussels. The brail was then raised and the mussels were removed and collected in a container inside the boat. This process was repeated over and over. It was dirty work in the hot sun. The men worked barefoot, rather than be in wet shoes all day, and their feet toughened. The musselers were competitive about knowing where the beds were and about getting out on the river at the most advantageous time of day.

Local women cooked the mussels in vats at the river’s edge. The vats were shallow and flat with a wood fire burning underneath. That, too, was hot dirty work but they liked the money. There was just enough cooking to allow the mussel meat to be easily removed from the shell. The musselers paid the women for removing the meat from the shells. When the Igert Towing Company barge arrived upriver from Paducah, the cleaned shells were transferred onto the barge with Japan as their ultimate destination. They would be used by the Japanese for making buttons and various trinkets.

Mussels thrive best in moving water, so when the TVA built the dam near Paducah, KY, turning the Tennessee River into Kentucky Lake, the musseling business died out. Also, the more modern use of plastics for making buttons lessened the demand for mussel shells.

Besides being paid by the musselers for removing the mussels from the shells, the farm women could bring the cooked mussel meats home and feed them to their hogs. This prized hog food was usually carried home in an old zinc washtub in the back of a pickup truck. On her way home one day, Mama stopped to chat with a neighbor friend while parked on the dirt road in front of the parsonage. She was standing at the back of the truck when she spotted a perfect pearl on top the pile of mussel meats.

I was fifteen years old in 1945 when this occurred. Mama and Daddy eventually took the pearl to a jewelry store in Paris, TN, and had it set in a simple gold ring that fit my ring finger. It was unpretentious and felt like part of me. I wore it for many years. Even after marriage I wore it with the cheap gold wedding band bought in New Orleans for my surprise and unexpected wedding. A few months later my husband and I bought matching, wider, gold wedding bands with embossed orange blossoms. For many years, I wore the three rings together – the pearl, the $7.00 wedding band, and the wider band with orange blossoms. Years later, when our daughter Clea’s finger was big enough, the pearl ring was passed on to her and she wore it as a teenager. Granddaughter Anna Rose can wear it if she wants to, or perhaps it will someday grace the hand of a great-granddaughter.

This perfect and beautiful pearl was found unexpectedly, in an unlikely location, on a pile of ugly mussel-meat hog food from the Tennessee River. The pearl serves as a reminder for us to always remain open to detecting small gifts of beauty like my mother, Hattie McHood Martin, did that day. I thank her for espying it, retrieving it, and turning it into a ring for me.

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