Clamming on the Huron

Clamming on the Huron – excerpted from the article by Gerald B. Wykes

By the time Don Woodruff began to ply his trade along the Huron River in the late 1920s and early 1930s the object of his search was already on the decline. Don was one of a select few who once gathered freshwater mussel shells for the pearl button industry and one of the last surviving Huron Rivermen known as “clammers”.

A stained 1932 “License to Take Mussels” (No. 359) and a few small jars of rough looking pearls are the only physical evidence of Don’s activities as a clammer. “I didn’t do very well that year”, he confesses. He once worked the river from Flat Rock to Rockwood in waders as he handpicked living clams from the bottom. He would steam out the meat, feel them out for pearls, and save the cleaned shells for a buyer who would come through each fall and load up a train car at Flat Rock.

The Huron River was one of a half dozen rivers in southern Michigan which produced enough freshwater mussels, or clams, to nurture a significant but brief industry in the early 1900s [although] the Huron River never produced a tremendous quantity of clams and consistently ranked sixth among the Michigan stream in numbers. Thick-shelled commercial species with colorful names like Hickory Nut, Pimpleback, Maple-leaf, Pigtoe, Three Ridge, Mucket, Pocketbook, and Black Sand Shell were present in sufficient quantities to support a few part-time clammers. The Mucket was the largest and most prevalent species. According to a 1913 Bureau of Fisheries report, listing the Huron and River Raisin jointly, 16 people were engaged in the activity. They netted 51 tons of shells at $19 per ton.

This material was extracted from an article by Gerald P. Wykes that appears in The Huron River: Voices from the Watershed, John Knott and Keith Taylor (eds), Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2000, pp 192-195.