New beginning for store, new venue for history

LAKE CITY — The 149-year-old Lake City Pearl Button Co. in downtown Lake City has a new beginning with six new owners, and it's offering the Lake City Historical Society another venue to show its collection, including a new video on the Lake Pepin clamming industry.

Mary Jane Rasmussen said the six are she and her husband, Tom Rasmussen, John and Sharon Hutchinson, Jodee Glenna and Suzie Spain. Two of the original four owners who are still with the historic store near the Lake City Marina are Rene Lawson and Lora Schwartz; Dave and Juleen Close dropped out.

Each of the partners brings her or his own field of expertise, she said, such as nautical signs, women's fashion or gourmet foods. Hers is in communications. The Rasmussens are retired and also left behind a concession stand they once operated. They lived in Rochester until moving to Lake City about a year ago.

"This is fun," she said. "In order to age well, you have to learn new things, be active in your community."

Besides those offerings, the store also rents space to others who sell antiques and other items, she said.


One thing she noticed when she joined was that the store, and community, needed a coffee shop. The Button Cup Coffee Shop and Treats Shop is now open at 226 S. Washington St.

When they were looking at how to rearrange the store, Rasmussen said, they noticed a small Lake City Historical Society exhibit of the pearl button industry that was tucked away. The owners decided to expand it and add more items because of the store's connection to the industry.

It was at first a dry goods store when it opened nearly 150 years ago. It was where clammers would bring the empty clam shells they harvested by the millions from Lake Pepin. In the building, they would be cleaned and round blanks drilled out; then the blanks were sent to button-making companies further south. The hand-operated elevator to bring items up from the basement is still there and still works, she said.

To show the story of the pearl buttons, Ben Threinen, who already has done a documentary on famous names of Lake City, did an eight-minute documentary on the pearl button industry, which was a major industry on the Mississippi River from Lake City down into Iowa. Lake City is on Lake Pepin, which is a natural reservoir of the river. The documentary is on a loop so it's shown continually.

The historical society doesn't have its own building, so it needs others to give it some space for its displays, Threinen said.

"We wanted to make this more visible to the town," Rasmussen said.

"I think we can reach a lot more people here than in other venues," Threinen said.

The display will help bring more people into the shop and give them more things to do in the city, she said. Lake City has Pepin and the bluffs but still needs more things for people to do, such as ride bikes or rent a boat, Rasmussen said.


"This town is begging for entrepreneurs," she said.

Eloise Blattner, president of the Lake City Historical Society, said the society has a few things scattered around in some shops, as well as the city hall ballroom. They also do programs around the town and are connected with the Wabasha and Goodhue counties' historical societies because the city is in both counties, she said.

But the historical society still would like its own home where everything could be on display, she said.

The Pearl Button and its video "has been a wonderful thing and has brought new recognition," she said.

In the past, the best they might be able to do is put some items in a store's window. "This is the newest thing," Blattner said.


More about pearl buttons

Some facts about the pearl button industry on Lake Pepin, from Ben Threinen's video:


• Native Americans wore pearls as jewelry when the first French came to the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

• Clams were first harvested for their pearls. Some were round, others oblong or irregularly shaped. They were purple, brown, champagne and gray.

• At the industry's peak, 500 to 600 clammers harvested about 2,400 tons a year from Pepin.

• They caught clams by dragging large hooks along the bottom and clams, which lay on the bottom and grab food when it passes over, would clamp down on the hook.

• The clamming industry was active from 1910 to 1930; after that, pollution and overharvesting severely depleted numbers of clams and plastics became the material for buttons.

• For a while, half the world's buttons came from the Upper Mississippi .

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