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 picture with the wagon.
"My grandparents lived in Ionia on the Grand river. Grandpa made a living dragging the river for clams.
I grew up hearing these amazing stories from my mom (who is the baby grandpa is holding in this photo) & all my aunts/uncles.
They had a flat bottom wood raft. On the back were several lines of ropes with a series of large hooks (like a trout line). The hook lines were tossed off the back of the raft & drug a few miles up & down the river. If a hook brushed up against a clam it would snap shut on the hook. At the end of the trip they’d pull up the lines.
The whole family would shuck the clams, the littlest of the children would dig out the meat & occasionally came across a pearl. My mom found one that netted them $8, which bought shoes for all 7 of them!
The meat was fed to the chickens & the mother of pearl shells were sold to a button factory. This is a pile of the shells with the family standing around. Photo taken in 1919"
"We use to dig thru the mountain of clam shells outside the factory trying to find a clamshell without holes in it."