Vavra shines light on Mississippi River clamming history

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Riverboat Captain and historian Robert C. Vavra is all smiles as he shares his love of the river while piloting his boat, "The Maiden Voyage," on the Upper Mississippi River. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Robert Vavra has always had a passion for the river. As a young lad growing up in Swisher, Vavra enjoyed spending his time outdoors in and along the banks of the Mississippi River, canoeing, swimming, and snake, frog and crawdad hunting. 

Vavra, a Mississippi riverboat captain and owner-operator of The Maiden Voyage, a working riverboat on the Upper Mississippi River, presented a program; The day of the Hunter Gatherer on April 11, in the auditorium of the city’s municipal building 

The presentation was co-funded by The Guttenberg Library Foundation and Humanities Iowa, a private, non-profit state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.   

Vavra shared his personal experience trying to carve out a living on the Mississippi. 

"When I graduated from high school, I drank beer, chased women and when that didn't work out found a job," he said with a chuckle.  

"I worked with a couple of guys from Muscatine and they recommended I try diving for mussels. I moved to Harpers Ferry and began clamming, commercial fishing and trapping in the winter and working a little construction when I was desperate, to make a living," he commented. 

 avra paid homage to local commercial fisherman Lonnie Keehner. "Guys like Lonnie showed us how it was done. He has been at it a long time and I have great respect for him," he said.  

Vavra continued, "After working a number of years in commercial fishing, clamming and trapping, I realized a young man should not hitch his wagon to a dying industry," he continued. "Today commercial fishing, clamming and trapping has all but disappeared. I witnessed its death." 

Vavra continued to reside in Harpers Ferry and met and married his wife, Deb, the two have a son, Cody. The couple purchased a tavern and sports shop. He later sold the tavern and purchased a little campground in Harper's. Vavra returned to school to obtain his Master Pilots license and now pilots his own boat on the Mississippi River. 

History of clamming

Vavra's colorful presentation on the history of clamming was filled with human-interest stories and many artifacts from the industry that he passed around and shared with the audience. 

"The first wave of clamming began with the native Americans. They would eat them in desperation for protein, storing them in a holding area in a cold spring during the winter months. They would discard the shells and throw them in a mound. Those mounds can still be found in and along the river." 

He continued, "The second wave was the button industry which began in Muscatine." The industry quickly caught on in other communities located along the river.

Many notable events sprang from this industry outside the production of buttons. 

Varva shared, "Henry Ford was reported to have toured the plant in Muscatine and later used the knowledge he obtained to create his own assembly line industry, which later gave birth to the automobile industry." 

He went on to say, "A young woman in her teens named Pearl toured the Muscatine facility with her parents. She was astounded and disturbed by what she saw. She witnessed mistreatment of the workers and an unsafe work environment."

Vavra continued, "The event inspired her to become an advocate and tireless champion for equal rights and safe working conditions for workers. She and her husband later lost their lives because of her dedication to the cause." 

There were eventually 19 states that had button factories that shipped products all over the world. In the 1890s, transient workers traveled by shanty boats up and down the river, working in the factories to carve out a living in the booming industry, and squatting on whatever land they could find. 

"The third wave of the clamming industry came about with the discovery of freshwater pearls found inside the mussels. Many wealthy individuals, dignitaries and royalty sought after these precious gems. The late Princess Diana received a pink freshwater pearl for her wedding day. The pearl came from  Lynxville, Wis.," he said.

Vavra went on to say, "The final chapter in the clamming industry was during the 1990s. Pearl harvesters in China discovered that cutting a small square from a freshwater mussel shell could be inserted into an oyster shell and the small piece would cause the oyster to create a cultured pearl." 

He said, "From this point on technology came into play. We hooked ourselves up to an air compressor in the boat and spent hours crawling along the muddy bottom of the river searching with gloved hands to try and locate the valuable mussels. We dragged our boat behind us by pulling on the air hose. We marked our area with a dive flag to alert boaters of our location," he said. 

This style of clamming was hard dirty work, and those clamming were often plagued by ear infections and lacerated hands from trying to locate the sharp sought-after mussels. 

Invasion of the Zebra Mussel and laws created to stop the harvesting of the freshwater clams put and end to the industry in 1996.

Vavra ended his program recognizing the ingenuity of our ancestors in their utilization and respect of the Mississippi's mighty waters.

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