My Hometown Part I – The Man and His Clam

Posted: June 24, 2009 in Half Truths & Outright Lies About My Hometown

The Muscatine Journal recently voted the clubhouse at Whispering Pines Golf Course as the town’s 2008 event venue of the year. This was a lofty honor sought after and denied to all of the town’s Lodges – The Moose Lodge, The Eagles, Elks, etc. The local VFW folks likely wrote a hissy-fitted Letter to the Editor as well.

…Attend an event at The Pines and you will surely find it to be an exceptional gathering place, but consider this, the same publication once voted Long John Silver’s as the town’s best choice for Seafood. That same year the best choice for Mexican Food was a restaurant that serves Tomato Sauce, not Salsa with its complimentary chips.

But, not do digress too much for now. It couldn’t have hurt The Pines to have the endorsement of the Journal, the town’s major afternoon news rag (notice I didn’t say morning daily – also, it is not available on Sundays) when organizers of my 20 Year High School Reunion picked Whispering Pines as the venue for a raucous night of fun, storytelling and the conjuring of old demons – real and imagined. I attended the event recently with the Mrs. Liebrandt and well over 200 or so other Class of 89 revelers and spouses.

As an amateur historian, last week’s event made me recollect much about my hometown’s history, although, I kept most of these ‘Did You Knows’ to myself as I did not want to appear like a complete wacko nut job. I then started ordering PBR by choice from the cash bar when they had a Bud Keg for free and the wacko nut job thought was pointless.

A future blog entry will go into more detail on reunion specific observations. For one, the supposed vaunted venue of the year didn’t exactly have a working, functioning restroom facility, and for another, I was surprised that electronic retail sales was the job that most turned on the girls in my class. But, to set the stage for that future entry, The Small Ball Report reader first needs to understand a brief history of my hometown: Muscatine, Iowa. My version however differs slightly from ones you may have heard before.

Where is Muscatine? To find Muscatine on a map, picture the State of Iowa as a persons head. An ugly head, like let’s say – Nick Nolte. Not that Iowa itself is ugly, but what state looks sexy and attractive on a map, we are talking about geography here. So picture Nick Nolte just being arrested for being a crazy buffoon – I know that happened once – and they take his mug shot facing to the right. Now, I couldn’t find that one on the internet, so imagine the above picture’s side profile mug shot companion. In the side profile, Muscatine would be Nick Nolte’s nostril. And the entirety of Nick Nolte’s face from forehead to chin is the Iowa portion of the Mississippi River. Or as an alternative, you can just look at the other above picture and notice my handy arrow pointing you to Muscatine.

So Muscatine sits on the greatest of American waterways, the mighty Mississippi, at the very spot that the Old Man turns back to the South after one of its few westerly jaunts.

When Muscatine and the rest of the Iowa Territory was first settled in the early 1800s the town was originally called Bloomington. About this time as everyone knows the first episode of the Simpsons aired on Fox. Or doesn’t it just seem like Homer and Bart have been around that long? Anyway, like the Springfield of the Simpsons, Bloomington was a town name already being used in every eventual Big Ten state so the settlers got together at the local mill and voted between two choices: Muscatine and Casey’s Woodpile. Now, I’m glad they picked Muscatine because a graduate from Casey’s Woodpile High might not have gotten into my alma mater, Drake.

So Iowa joined the Union in 1846, and as a non-slave state situated on a waterway connected to the South, Muscatine became a haven for fugitive and freed slaves. At one time Muscatine had the largest population of African Americans in the entire state. Sadly, a demographic shift had to have occurred sometime over the next 100 years because by the time I got to high school most of the Brothers had moved to nearby Davenport and Burlington, and would routinely dunk over me in the late 1980s.   

After the Civil War, the course of Muscatine’s industrial future would be set almost by accident. An immigrant from Hamburg, Germany named J.F. Boepple was frolicking about in the shallow, muddy Mississippi River late one night in 1891. Likely he was just conjuring back to his youth when he used to swim the waters of Germany’s Elbe River looking for girls bathing in those sexy full body 1800s white underwear suits. Or maybe he liked guys, how would I know? He was the one frolicking in the river, not me. And then it happened, J.F Boepple stepped on the sharp edge of a clam shell. While other towns would have Gold and Land Rushes, Muscatine was about to welcome the Great American Clam Rush.

It turns out – the cut-out and polished underside of a clam shell makes a Pearl Button, and the Hilfigers and Kleins of the day would need the Pearl Buttons in their clothing designs to keep people’s trousers up. With this kind of demand for Pearl Buttons, guys that liked “The Clam” came from all over. At its pinnacle, nearly 40 button factories would sprout up along the river’s edge, with workers carving up clams into buttons. Now one can picture the various joke telling and innuendo that was associated with being a Clam Worker. One clam worker might have been heard to say to another: “Ah, Check out the Mollusk on this one!” Or “That’s a nice pair of Clamshells!”

But, the fun and hi-jinx at the button factory would not last forever, as a smart scientist would invent the plastic button, and a new more cost efficient button business model sprang forth. Those cushy corner office Pearl Button cutting jobs would vanish. Where did the button workers go? Well first, before they punched out their last Pearl Button they filled up their pockets, and forty years later there was not an Estate Sale in town where you couldn’t find a trunk of Pearl Buttons in the basement. But after that, they went to work making America’s Ketchup. Because about that same time the HJ Heinz Company had tired of polluting the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela Rivers near Pittsburgh. They decided they needed to branch out and smell up my hometown and pollute my river, Muscatine’s Mississippi. So check back later for My Hometown Part II – They Found What in a Ketchup Bottle?

And later this summer on The Small Ball Report, look for My Hometown Part VII – Tales from a Ripley Double Wide.

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