Who’s Got the Buttons?
By Eileen Mattei
If you walk along the canal banks as I do, you’ll see thousands of small white shells dredged up as the irrigation districts clean the canals. Sometimes I find larger shells, three to four inches across, which have a shiny, pearl-like interior. Shells of these Tampico pearlymussels found in Valley canals and resacas were made into pearl buttons by the Continental Button Company, which opened in Mercedes in 1929.
At an Archeology Day exhibit at Palo Alto National Battlefield Historical Park, I spotted an old card of shell buttons labelled Rio Grande Button Company of Mercedes. That made me curious enough to search archives and ask people about pearl buttons. Also known as the Concho River pearl mussel and the purple shell mussel, the oval-shaped pearlymussel grows to 4 ¼ inches by 2 ½ inches in five years buried in the mud. Although the outer shell is reddish-brown, the interior is pink.
I finally found that Harlingen historian Norman Rozeff and the late Weslaco historian Fran Isbell had pieced together histories of Valley button-making and talked to people who had worked in the industry.
Muscatine, Iowa, in the 1920s was called America’s pearl button capital. At one point, the small town on the banks of the Mississippi River had 43 pearl button factories where iridescent buttons were cut out of river mussel shells. Otto John Tobias brought the Healey brothers, Frank and Ted, from Muscatine to see the potential for a button factory in Mercedes. The brothers leased a building near the corner of Illinois and 4th Street from W.D. Chaddick and opened Continental Button Company in June 1929. The Healeys were vice presidents in charge of operations at the plant. Tobias became the manager, and within the next 10 years he bought the factory and changed its name to Rio Grande Button Company. It remained the only pearl button manufacturer in Texas.
When the factory opened, it had 48 button-cutting machines and 60 employees, mostly Mexican –American women and a payroll of $50,000. Rozeff described how the whole mussels were boiled in large vats. Then the meat was removed and the shells dried before being soaked again to soften them for cutting.
Rozeff also explained the button-making process. “The women employees operated circular saws the sizes of the button blanks to be cut. The shells were held by forceps against a backstop. The rotating saw blade then moved down and, under a fine water spray, the blade cut out a blank which dropped into a container below. Different individuals were assigned tasks based on the portion of the shell being worked on. The thinnest portions of the shell were left for the most dexterous workers because this part was the most fragile and where the smallest button blanks were extracted.”
Although Continental Button at first had employed up to 40 men to collect mussels, soon private mussel collectors and contractors supplied the factory. Tampico pearlymussels thrived in the soft mud of resacas, canals and Llano Grande Lake.
Don Warner of Mercedes, who was interviewed by Fran Isabel more than 35 years ago, told her the Llano Grande Lake mussel collectors tied a rope around their waists and tugged a 10-15 foot long flat-bottomed boat behind them. Inside it, two tubs filled with water and an alligator gar held the live mussels, as the collectors attempted to protect the resource. “When the mussels spawned, the eggs attached themselves to the gills of the gar, which later was returned to the lake to replenish the clam beds,” he recalled.
The men pulled metal baskets through the soft mud to capture the bi-valves. One report has the men receiving ten cents per tub of live mussels.
“The mussels would be steamed or boiled directly on wood fires to open them so the meat could be removed,” Rozeff wrote. Between five and ten tons of cleaned mussel shells were delivered to the factory daily. The collectors sold the mussel meat for animal feed or fertilizer. The used shells were used for drainage and roadways.
Children in the Valley would scavenge mussels left in canal mud, letting ants clean out the meat. The shells were then bundled into sacks, taken by horse to Mercedes and were sold for up to 25 cents per sack in the 1930s, according to the late Glenn Housley of Weslaco.
In 1955, as plastics and zippers replaced shell and metal buttons and the availability of local shells plummeted, the business closed down and the building was soon demolished.