Fourth of a series
During the first three decades of western migration into southeast Minnesota – for most residents in the 1850s, ’60s and ‘70s –rivers were both a welcome highway and an unwelcome obstacle (depending on which direction you wanted to travel). Steamboat transit for passengers and cargo was an early commercial enterprise during warm weather until an 1880 public bridge across the Mississippi River ushered in a new era of transportation. However, that big river continued for decades to be a source of livelihood for some. For most of the year, fishermen, trappers, ice men and clammers were busy on or near the wide waterway. And for a while, there was opportunity for profit for some lawbreakers.
Fishing drew the most commercial workers, who set nets and lines in those early days as they would for decades to come. According to Carol Walhovd and Fern Heiller, who compiled and edited the book, “The Brownsville Story,” one tale involved a fisherman whose nets were once so full of fish that he bought a houseful of furniture as a surprise gift for his family. The problem was he did not have a dwelling large enough to house all of the prized purchases. He had to store it all outside under covers until he had time to build a larger house. This was quite an amusing situation for the neighbors.
Ice men would cut long “logs” of ice and then cut ice into large blocks, which would be hauled into town and placed in ice houses. The blocks would be buried in sawdust to prevent melting until summer when the ice men would sell ice to the public. The arrival of the ice wagon was a thrill for children, who hoped to munch on a sliver of ice.
In warm weather, clammers would drag behind a small boat a “drag line, rigged up to a rake-like device,” which they attempted to keep on the bottom where the clams resided. When asked when they knew they had clams in the net, one clammer replied, “When it got heavy, it must be full.”
In winter, clammers cut a large hole in the ice and used long rakes, as far as they could reach, to collect clams. When they exhausted the supply of clams at one hole, they moved on and cut another opening in the ice. After a good day’s haul, they went ashore to boil the clams in a large tank. This process caused the clam shells to open wide, and the clams were “cleaned.” The muscle was removed and discarded.
Finding a pearl meant a little more money that day after selling it to a jeweler. To prevent the pearls from “checking” (cracking), men would carry them in their mouths while walking, even as far as Waukon, to get a good price. “Joe Sauer can recall the day he and his partner, Mr. J. Knigge, found two pearls and sold them for $8.00 each.” Ann Kletzke remembered a pearl being sold for a large sum of $200.
The clam shells were taken to one of the three area button factories in La Crosse, Wis., and Lansing, Iowa, where a special steam-driven press would cut holes in each shell. The “cut-out” disk could then be polished and finished as a button.
Trappers were busy along the sloughs where they hid their traps for unsuspecting furry denizens. Most prized and also plentiful were muskrat and mink, whose hides brought a good price. Setting and running these traps was quite a task, but it proved profitable for many years.
During the era known as Prohibition (1920-1930), the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution made it illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol. The islands in the Mississippi River were used by some men known as “moonshiners.” They brewed their moonshine in remote areas and sold their potions “at every gathering of two or more where a thirst might occur.”
In the 1930s, many local men were employed when the government installed locks and dams, raising the water level. Logs from many soon-to-be-submerged islands were cut and hauled ashore. “Where once cattle and hogs were put to spend the summer was turned into swift current.”