Man has been harvesting mussels from the Tennessee River for thousands of years. Mussels were an important food source for Native Americans from early times. During the 1800s and early 1900s mussels were harvested as a source of mother-of-pearl primarily for buttons and for use in inlay. The Japanaese discovered the high-quality of Tennessee River mussel shells in the 1950s and since that time, the market for mussels has been driven by the Japanese Cultured Pearl industry. Companies in Benton County, TN such as Tennessee Shell Company and American Shell Company led the world in providing mother-of-pearl to Japan. The market rose steadily during the 1970s and 80s and experienced a boom in the 90s. As both the american and japanese economies thrived, the shell business did as well. Prices on shells tripled and quadrupled as did the number of divers. This boom came to an end around 99 as the Japanese market crashed and the cultured pearl beds off the coast of Japan were damaged extensively by unchecked pollution. Since those days the shell business has limped along, barely surviving and the outlook for the future does not look good. This website and blog is meant to document and record a lifestyle that once was powerful but seems to be on its last legs.
Besides mussels and the occasional artifact, there are all kinds of interesting things to find on the bottom of the river. I've found everything from working trolling motors, anchors, props, boats and even an iphone. I found this iphone 4 in about 10 feet of water June 1, 2013. It was in a lifeproof case but it had water in it. I took it home as a joke to show the family. My wife, Michelle, took the phone out of the case and put it in a bowl of dry rice. Within a few days, it dried out and now it works perfectly. The last text was from June 20, 2012, it spent almost a year on the bottom of the lake! I use it as a camera and ipod now.