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Past Times: living off the Illinois River

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George Woodruff spent 1871 like a true old-time river rat. He traveled up and down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers that year, hunting deer, gathering nuts, trapping muskrats for their fur, and cutting wood for steamboats. He camped on the riverbank whenever it was convenient, had no boss, punched no time clock. He probably never even looked at a clock. At some point in his travels that year he married.

Woodruff's life-style was a typical one back in the old days when fish and waterfowl and mussels were plentiful on midwestern rivers. It was a hardscrabble existence, often a hand-to-mouth one. And if they were scorned by more respectable town and farm dwellers, at least the river rats had their freedom. They were proud of their muddy lives.

Eventually Woodruff decided to get respectable. He quit his wandering and towed his houseboat ashore near Peoria. He added on to it, making it all house and no boat. He and his family ended up owning several gas stations, and he and his wife lived long enough to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary in 1946.

Woodruff's story is one of those told in a new traveling exhibit assembled by the Illinois State Museum, "Harvesting the River." The exhibit includes maps, artifacts, historic photographs, and audiotapes of old-timers reminiscing about life on the river; it is housed in the Belle Reynolds, a converted river towboat. The Belle Reynolds will travel the length of the Illinois River this fall, stopping at over a dozen ports along the way.

The exhibit is partly based on a series of oral-history interviews conducted by a team of museum researchers. Craig Colten, associate curator of geography for the museum, calls the project "an intellectual bridge between the prehistory of the river and the modern history of the river. We chose the period when environmental change was the greatest. The main activities here are river trades: commercial hunting for ducks and geese, mussel gathering--the shells were used to make buttons--and commercial fishing. We looked at the folk traditions of those collecting activities."

Button cutting was a $12.5 million business on midwestern rivers in 1916. Mussels were collected either by hand--in the shallows--or from boats, using arrays of hooks known as crowfoot bars. Once ashore, the shells were steamed open--a smelly business--and a machine was used to cut button-size circles out of the shell. The resulting "blanks" were then finished into fancy opalescent buttons. Other midwestern mussel shell found its way onto, among other things, the grips of pearl-handled revolvers. And occasionally a river rat might find a pearl in an old mussel--cause for celebration.

After the summer mussel season, river residents might turn to duck hunting in the fall, sending the meat to Chicago and plucking down for use in pillows and quilts. When the river froze up, they cut ice--much of which was used to preserve fish for shipment to markets out east. It was seasonal work, dictated only by the rhythms of nature.

The river's resources, though, could not last. The exhibit takes the viewer up to the present day, depicting the web of problems that has beset the river in the last century: Mussel gathering, waterfowl hunting, and fishing all declined after Chicago began sending its sewage down the river in 1900. Levees that were built to contend with the increased flow of water destroyed vast areas of fertile bottomlands--prime habitat for fish spawning and waterfowl feeding--and fish populations were reduced by pollution. The construction of a shipping channel (completed in the 1930s) and more intensive farming practices (beginning in the 1940s) increased sedimentation and pollution further. Many river rats had to get respectable jobs, and the old river occupations became hobbies.

Against this litany, it's remarkable that some of the old ways still survive. "The last button factory on the Illinois River closed in the late 1940s," says Craig Colten. "But mussel gathering has now gone through something of a revival. They ship the shells to Japan, where they grind them up and use them as seed material for cultured pearls. So if you buy a string of pearls it's likely that there's a germ of Illinois or Mississippi River mussel in there."

From next Tuesday, September 5, though Sunday, September 10, the Belle Reynolds will be docked at Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park, 201 W. Jefferson in Joliet. There will be a slew of related events on the boat and ashore: they include craft demonstrations, folk-music concerts, story telling, a lecture, and several other exhibits. For a full schedule, call the park office at 815-740-2298. The Belle Reynolds will be open for viewing from 12 to 6 Tuesday, 9 to 5 Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 to 7:30 Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 to 5:30 Sunday. Admission is free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Henry Public Library, courtesy E.E. Van Fossen, courtesy Marshall County Historical Society, Peter Friederici.

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