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A find by two boys on the Caney Fork River starts a “gold rush”

A find by two boys on the Caney Fork River starts a “gold rush”

Charles Bradford and James Johnson were just boys using mussel flesh for bait. The Murfreesboro boys were fishing in a tributary called Indian Creek right where it flows into the Caney Fork River in the 1880s when, on opening a mussel they had picked up from a gravel bar of Indian Creek, they found a large white pearl. They took it to William Wendel, a Murfreesboro druggist, who sent it off to Tiffany’s Jewlers in New York City. Not much later the boys received a check for an impressive $83. This was a good deal of money in the 1880’s when a man’s wages were sometimes .25 cents per day for hard manual labor.

It is said that the highest price ever paid for a Tennessee pearl at the time was $2,000, a whole lot of money in those days! The two boys started a “gold rush” that had local people harvesting mussels and sifting through the flesh to find the suddenly valuable “Tennessee Pearl.” It is said that large mounds of mussel shells dotted many a gravel bar on the Caney Fork, Duck, Cumberland, Calf Killer and Collins Rivers. Freshwater pearls are the state gem and are raised mostly in aquaculture to this day.

I once used mussel flesh for bait myself but have stopped doing so because many of our mussel species are endangered or rare. The Caney Fork River below the dam at Center Hill doesn’t seem to have any living mussels in it anymore, at least I’ve never found one. My guess is that this is because of the much colder water or the high water generation levels but the shells are still plentiful to this day. It’s hard to believe that these mussel shells are still around if the last mussels died out in 1948 when the dam was closed but I suppose it’s possible.

Further reading see an article from the Nashville Tennessean on March 1, 1964, “When Pearls Grew Big in Tennessee.” Attached by permission below:
Caney Fork River Pearls







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