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


21 Responses to “Discovering a historic gem (pearl) in Lake City”

  1. hotlyspiced Says:

    That’s a very beautiful lake Audrey. So the heat is continuing? Is August usually your hottest month? Then that’s a really long summer you’re having. I love pearl buttons. What a wonderful part of history that old business is xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Lake Pepin is a wide spot in the Mississippi River, our country’s major riverway which begins in northern Minnesota and runs all the way to the Gulf.

      We had some relief last week from the heat. We actually traveled to Lake City on July 3. But the heat and humidity are back today with a temp of 100 degrees expected and it will feel more like 105 or so.

      This is not typical of Minnesota. We get hot weather, but not these many hot days for this long of a stretch. It’s the humidity which makes conditions worse, way worse.

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    What? no eval of the great quilt shop there?? (http://www.ratherbeequilting.com/ ) Just kidding~will be going that direction on this Friday for lunch at the Chickadee Cottage Cafe (http://www.chickadeecottagecafe.com/ ). Haven’t been there in years. My little “firefly guy” should be in his new home today. A very long story. Watch for my post. Hugs……..

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, I believe I noticed that quilt shop. But, alas, I am not a quilter. I love the name of that cafe. Take your camera and give us a review.

      I’ll be waiting to hear your Little boy with firefly story.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        Oh absolutely! Work today at the pharmacy so DH will be picking him up!! Just teasing on the quilt shop. Loved the info on the buttons/clamming!!!!!!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Yup, I knew you were teasing on the quilt shop. I found the button info so fascinating.

  3. Allan Landman Says:

    AGAIN AUDREY, your photos are award winning!! I really like the 4th photo down from the top, with the nautical glasses with “birds” on the other side. That would make a wonderful still life painting. Lake City is one of the top places to visit while in Mn. The downtown area is so real with the old buildings and cleanliness. Of course along with classic cars, I love boats too, and the harbor photo with all the boats moored is great too. Can you believe I have lived all my 61 years in Mn and have lived on the shore of a Lake or River the entire time, and never learned how to swim, or own a boat!!!???? However, I respect the water and never go out in boat without a life jacket on. People call me chicken, but I would rather be a LIVE wet chicken than a dead one. I urge all to wear life jackets even if you can swim like an otter, if you get knocked out in a boating accident, you can not swim! Thanks for making the mornings great with your blog Audrey.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, thank you so much Allan. We need to return to Lake City when it’s not so hot because I’m certain we did not see everything we should have.

      Unlike you, I did not grow up any where near water. Redwood County doesn’t have a single natural lake, of which I’m aware. There’s man-made Lake Laura in Plum Creek County Park by Walnut Grove.

      Anyway, I don’t like being on the water and can’t swim (thanks to some swimming teachers who threatened to throw me in the deep end of the Redwood Falls swimming pool; they should NEVER have been teachers).

      Great advice to all to always wear life jackets.

      Good morning to you, too, Allan.

      • Allan Landman Says:

        I was also threatened to be thrown into the water at a very young age. Why do people think that is the best way to learn? And why do us non swimmers have to hide that fact or be teased or thrown in when we least expect it? Death is not an option I want prematurely, and non swimmers can die very easily by fright alone! My new motto is: “Be kind and respect all non swimmers. Teach them only if they want to learn how to swim, and never force them.”. How is that Audrey?

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Excellent advice, Allan. Excellent. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you.

  4. Jackie Says:

    Been to Lake City several times but never noticed the button co. I will next time! Lake City is indeed a beautiful city and not to far from my home, about 35 miles. This HOT weather is driving me crazy, I cant wait for a cool-down!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I can understand how you, or any visitor to Lake City, could overlook the button-making connection in this community. I’m always curious and had to ask. I’m with you on the heat. Do NOT like it.

  5. Beautiful Place – loving your photos:) Happy Monday!

  6. jhc1218 Says:

    Some of my girlfriends and I rented a house in Lake City for a weekend in February and loved the town. We spent a little too much time at the Pearl Button Company, so much that unknowningly stayed until an hour after close. Thankfully, purchases were made. They are getting the same house for a week at the end of August. It is directly across from Lake Pepin. Glad you like the town, make sure to get back and spend some time.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Hmmmm, and I bet you won’t be there at the end of August given the new baby. I may need to chat with you about this house rental. Sounds like fun. I bet the next time I return to the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co., I’ll drop some money on a purchase. I don’t always keep my purse snapped shut.

  7. I love Lake City – Colin’s aunt and uncle live there and we love their antiquing opportunities…and the Swedish shop! So many great posts, Audrey. I think I’ve caught up! Those shells with the button cut out…how cool!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, oh, we missed the Swedish shop. Next visit.

      You haven’t been busy or anything this summer, have you? Break a leg!

      • It’s almost at an end…which is both good and sad. The Swedish shop is called Uff Da and is right across the street from the St. James hotel. :o)

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Gretchen, the St. James Hotel is located in Red Wing. So do perhaps the relatives live in Red Wing instead of Lake City or is your mind totally befuddled? 🙂

      • Oh, yes. Oops! I tend to blend them together in my mind because we do both when we’re out there. The Swedish shop is in Redwing, yes…and the relatives are in Lake City…and my mind forgets that there’s like 15 minutes between!

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