History met nature at a program sponsored by the Northeast Arkansas Master Naturalists in conjunction with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Arkansas state parks. The program “Fresh Water Mussels: Their Status Today and Their Great Place in Arkansas History” was held at the Powhatan Historical State Park Male and Female Academy on July 8th. The program began with special exhibitions provided by NEAMN members and by Bill Posey.
Dr. Tom Dillard gave a presentation on the history of fresh water mussels in Arkansas and specifically in the northeast Arkansas and delta regions of the state. Dr. Dillard began his career as the first historian on the state of the Arkansas state parks and became head of US Special Collections in 2004. He retired from that position in 2012. In addition to his work at the UA, he is best known as the creator of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and as creator of the Richard C. Butler Center for Arkansas studies.
Bill Posey represented the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and presented the history, biology, and the environmental status of fresh water mussels in the state and primarily in the region. Mr. Posey is a 17-year veteran of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and currently serves as Assistant Chief in Fisheries. In that position he oversees the AGFC’s work in herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), malacology (mollusk), on-game biology, stream biologists, and stream team coordinators.
Fresh water mussels shaped much of the history in Arkansas. California had a gold rush and Arkansas had a Pearl Rush. Few people know that one of the grandest pearls of the Royal Crown of England came from Arkansas or that Richard Burton bought Elizabeth Taylor an Arkansas pearl in 1969. Native Americans treasured shells and pearls, utilizing them for ritualistic practices and in prehistoric industry. The Pearl Rush began in the late 1800’s and continued through1903 when Dr. J. H. Myers of Black Rock found a stunning 14 grain pink pearl worth a small fortune for the day. Thousands of mussels were killed to find that perfect pearl, and the remains of the mussel would go to waste. This spurred the button blank industry. The shells provided much of the world with buttons through the 1940’s, when plastic replaced the demand for shell buttons. That did not finish the need for Arkansas nacre, which is the iridescent substance the pearl is made of. The ‘50’s introduced more discretionary income and a strand of fine cultured pearls became a must-have for many American women. De Beer has the monopoly on diamonds, while Mikimoto has the top-secret monopoly for culturing the highest quality pearls. The small round nuclei pellets needed to seed a fine strand of marine cultured pearls is predominantly made of Arkansas Mother of Pearl.
The United States has the greatest number of freshwater mussel species on the planet, and Arkansas has one of the highest numbers of varied species in the United States. Unfortunately, of the 77 mussel species in Arkansas, 52 of them are carrying some risk for extinction and some are considered endangered for extinction. The last 30 years has seen a dramatic decline in the mussel population because of the loss of habitat and because of changes in the environment.
NEAMN members were joined for the program by guests from Diamond Lakes MN, North Central MN, the Lawrence County Historical Society, and several local residents.