Musseling the Mussel Fork

By Dennis Figg | June 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 1996

The rivers and streams of North Missouri were often named for features prominent in the minds of early settlers. Places with names like Eagle Lake, Elk Creek, Turkey Creek, and Mussel Fork reflect the abundance of fish and wildlife. History doesn't reliably record the origin of the name of Mussel Fork, but it seems safe to assume that the banks of this meandering north Missouri stream once abounded with mussel shells.

River mussels have always been an important natural resource. Native peoples used mussels as a ready food source, and large amounts of eroding shell can be found at many archaeological sites. After the mussels were eaten, the shells were made into tools and jewelry or ground into temper for making pottery.

Early Missouri settlers also used mussels. The first buttons made from freshwater mussel shell probably date from the early 1800s. Large processing plants sprang up along the Mississippi River to provide pearl buttons for the clothing industry. During the 1890s hundreds of tons of shells were taken from the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their many tributaries.

Even today freshwater mussels have commercial value. Tons of shell are exported annually, mostly to Japan for the cultured pearl industry. Nearly all cultured pearls are started by surgically implanting a smooth sphere ground from a mussel shell collected from the rivers and lakes of the Mississippi River basin.

The oyster responds to this "irritant" by depositing a thin layer of mother of pearl around the implanted shell, which is called the nucleus. After several months, the oyster is retrieved and the cultured pearl is removed. Mussels may no longer be on the menu of many Missourians, but they are commonly eaten by many species of Missouri wildlife. Raccoons, otters, waterfowl, muskrats and some fish eat mussels they retrieve from the bottom of Missouri streams.

Mussels don't get a lot of attention because they don't appear to be doing anything. A mussel hard at work looks pretty much like a mussel at rest. But the mussels' importance to our stream fauna has everything to do with its sedentary lifestyle and quiet feeding habits.

Mussels are filter feeders, pulling water into their body chambers with one siphon and forcing it out the other siphon. All the while they extract small particles of organic matter and microscopic animals from the water. For the most part, mussels sit in the bottom of the stream filtering water. One mussel cleans 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer