Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Discovering a historic gem (pearl) in Lake City July 16, 2012

A view of downtown Lake City, Minnesota.

DRIVING INTO LAKE CITY on a recent sultry summer afternoon, I expected to learn about water skiing in this Lake Pepin side community which calls itself the birthplace of that water sport.

Lots and lots and lots of sailboats are moored in Lake City.

After all, the popularity of water sports is evident in the sailboats crammed and tethered in the harbor on a weekday, waiting to be unleashed on the weekend.

I wanted to check out the sculpture (an anchor?) along Lake Pepin, but no parking was allowed and the weather was too hot to walk any distance. That’s Wisconsin across the lake. Beautiful scenery here in this busy water sport area.

And around the bend, fancy yachts—at least that’s what I call boats so big that one arrived on a semi—float in the bay. And a bit farther, boaters enjoy a summer afternoon on the lake.

Nautical-themed merchandise perched on a window on the second floor of Treats and Treasures. The “treats” are homemade candy, found downstairs in the treats section.

Offshore, too, you’ll catch the nautical theme of this Mississippi River town in business names and merchandise.

A side view of the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co., now an antique store featuring merchandise from some 40 dealers.

But, if you happen to walk into the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company, which is today a place of “the old, odd and unusual,” you will learn the gem of history I found most interesting about Lake City. Dave Close, who along with his wife, Juleen, runs the aforementioned antique store, will educate you about Lake City’s role in making pearl buttons.

It’s fascinating to hear about clammers who once harvested freshwater clams from Lake Pepin, delivering them to the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company and The Wisconsin Pearl Button Company (according to Steve Swan at Swan Jewelers). Both Swan and Close can offer detailed oral histories about local button making.

The Closes have this display of clam shells and button blanks in their shop.

According to Close, about 50 percent of the buttons in the world once came from the Upper Mississippi River, north of Ohio. That included Lake City, where factory workers sawed button “blanks” from clam shells before shipping the 50-pound burlap bags of clam shell cut-outs downriver to button finishing houses in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Muscatine, Iowa.

Old photos and more pay homage to this building’s former use as the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co.

Next to the still operating original freight elevator, the Closes have posted vintage photos and other items, including these clamming bar hooks. Note also the beautiful original wainscoting from the building.

Dave Close, co-owner and in-house historian at the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co.

Close has created a mini museum about this side of Lake City’s history behind the counter and in a corner of the 1866 former dry goods store which housed the button company from 1914 – 1920. It is the building’s history and Close’s clear appreciation for that history, which set his business apart from your typical antique shop. You need only notice the clam shells on the counter, the rainbow of buttons secured to his straw hat and the Pearl Button signage, inside and outside, to inquire about the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company.

Two freshwater pearl rings crafted by jeweler Steve Swan of Swan Jewelers in Lake City.

Nearby, Swan also honors Lake City’s button past via a display in his jewelry store that includes jewelry he’s crafted from the pearls of freshwater clams. Up until about a dozen years ago, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources halted clamming operations on the river, this jeweler was buying from clammers.

However, the once thriving pearl button making industry ended long before that, in the late 1930s, when plastic buttons replaced pearl buttons, according to Swan.

All of this I learned on a sultry summer afternoon in Lake City, the birthplace of water skiing.

WATCH FOR ANOTHER POST from this southeastern Minnesota community of some 5,000 residents and many, many, many boats.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling