Musseling the Mussel Fork

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

a good volume of water daily, and a large bed of mussels has a measurable affect on water quality. They can move up and down in the sandy gravel, and some species can move short distances by everting their "muscular foot" and giving it a good long stretch, but mostly they just sit and filter, and filter and sit.

Their sedentary filter feeding habits, a successful strategy for millions of years, may eventually be their downfall. The mussels' inability to move to better places when a stream is channelized or water gets polluted makes it difficult for them to survive. Many species are declining. In fact, there are more mussels listed as rare, endangered or at some level of concern than any other group of animals. What does that say for stream health? What could that mean for the raccoons, otters, muskrats and other species that feed on mussels? Mussels are a resource of the river, and if they are declining their disappearance indicates that we have problems with river health. What might that mean for the fish and other animals that depend on clean streams?

If you go looking in Mussel Fork today you can still find mussels living in the stream. The trained eye knows them as yellow sandshells, fragile papershells, three ridges, white heel-splitters, mapleleafs and deer toes. To the rest of us they are thick-shelled mussels, thin-shelled mussels and heel-splitters. Wading in the shallows and walking the gravel bars of Mussel Fork, it's not that hard to find a few shells, but they are not numerous and they don't seem to be finer or better than in any other stream in north Missouri. So why should the creek be named Mussel Fork? We looked back in history to see if there were clues to the origin of the name.

Some old documents suggest that the first settlers to this region were French fur traders who located near the mouth of the Chariton River (named in honor of their leader). Musselfork (also called PeeDee) was a trading point begun in the 1870s high in the prairie hills above Mussel Fork Creek. With the building of a grange hall in 1877, the trading center became a town. Campbell's Gazetteer of Missouri (1874) reports that "Nearly all of the pioneers were men of intelligence, substance and energy, well qualified to build up a new country."

In the decades to come, Musselfork would support general stores, drugstores, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, churches, a garage, a grist mill and the "Ladies Magic Club."

All this is written into history, yet the origin of the name of the town is as muddy as the creek itself. The spelling has changed several times, from "mussel fork" to "muscle ford" to "muscle fork" and back again, yet there are few recorded clues as to why the mussels at this location were different from those of other north Missouri prairie streams. We have learned that in all of Chariton County no township had a greater supply of water than Mussel Fork. That alone ought to mean lots of promise for an abundant mussel harvest, but there is no record of a local mussel industry or attention to any natural resource other than furs and timber and the rich prairie soil.

The town of Musselfork came and went. Like the mussel shells on the bank of Mussel Fork Creek, the old buildings provide clues about years past. Still, we can't with any certainty know the local history. We are drawn to the last few buildings in a shell of a town called Musselfork, and left to wonder if the mussels living in the stream are as destined to disappear, as did the town. Additional information about mussels can be found in Missouri Naiades, A Guide to the Mussels of Missouri, by Ron Oesch (1984), and Mussels (Naiades) of the Meramec River Basin by Alan C. Buchanan (1980). To purchase a copy of Missouri Naiades, send $5.00, plus $3 for shipping and handling (Missouri residents should add 32 cents for sales tax) to: Missouri Department of Conservation, Fiscal Section, PO Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180. For a free copy of Mussels (Naiades) of the Meramec River Basin, write Alan C. Buchanan, Fish and Wildlife Research Center, 1110 South College Ave., Columbia 65201.

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