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Highlights Archives

Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 2012


Milwaukee jewelers Louis C. Bunde and W.H. Upmeyer examining pearls (courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society)

For an event that lured such numbers of Wisconsin's citizenry into its rivers in search of instant riches at the end of the 19th century, the Wisconsin Pearl Rush has received remarkably little attention. The tumult that would engulf communities across the U.S. got its start in late summer 1889 in the quiet windings of the little Sugar River at Albany, Wisconsin. The pearls discovered there would become some of the most valuable and sought after in the world. In the circumscribed culture of 1889 small towns, before the telephone or automobiles, the lure of the river and pearls was irresistible. It meant an exciting break from everyday routine. The whole family would join in, especially because many lived close enough that they could walk to the river. Author George Johnson tells this fascinating and little-known tale in The American Pearl Rush: Its Wisconsin Beginnings in the spring issue of the "Wisconsin Magazine of History."

Crowds Swarm to the Sugar River

The first few days of the Albany rush, with its mass migration to the shallow waters, were the high-visibility part of the rush that made it especially newsworthy. The crowds gathered along the Sugar River and at a couple of road bridges out in the nearby countryside. In a few weeks, the nearby and most easily wadable sections were emptied of clams. Some families set up camp on the riverbank. The river itself was public property, as it is today, and by now everyone knew the pearls were out there. The high numbers of pearls identified as from the Sugar River three years into the rush tell us that many fortune seekers were still in the river, spreading up and downstream from the towns, long after the rush began.

Other Stories in the Spring 2012 Issue

This issue also includes articles on the founding of La Crosse, anti-Chinese sentiment in 1880s Milwaukee, and photogenic Appleton at the turn of the 20th century. Also included is an excerpt from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press title, Vintage Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Home Gardening.

Award of Merit Winner

The "Wisconsin Magazine of History" is the proud recipient of a prestigious 2010 Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History's Leadership in History Awards. The awards are presented for excellence in history programs, projects and people when compared with similar activities nationwide.

:: Posted March 12, 2012

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