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TN History for Kids

Tennessee River Pearl Farm

This Tennessee River Washboard Mussel has just
been cracked open, and you see the pearl inside.
Neat, huh?

When people talk about Tennessee products, they usually talk about crops like soybeans, minerals such as limestone, and man-made things such as cars. During this tour we'll talk about something produced in the Volunteer State that many people don't know about: freshwater pearls.

Some people know all about pearls. But some people wouldn't know a pearl if they saw one. For purposes of this virtual tour, we are going to assume that you are in the latter category.

A pearl is a smooth, rounded bead, formed within the shell of a mollusk, that is attractive enough to be used as a piece of jewelry. Furthermore, a mollusk (often spelled mollusc) is an animal that lives inside a shell in water.

A snail is a mollusk; so is an octopus (but snails and octopi don't form pearls). Today the mollusk that we will be talking about is the mussel, specifically the Tennessee River Washboard Mussel. Under the right conditions, Mother Nature forms pearls inside mussels. And the Tennessee River Washboard Mussel forms wonderful pearls.

A display at the
Tennessee River Pearl Museum

The pearl industry originally comes from Asia. In 1883 a Japanese man named Kokichi Mikimoto created the world's first cultured pearl (which means the first pearls intentionally cultivated and harvested). Today Mikimoto's name is synonmous with good pearls.

The person who brought the pearl industry to Tennessee was John Latendresse. Latendresse, who was (not coincidentally) married to a Japanese-born woman, spent many years trying to start a pearl farm in the United States. He researched practically every body of water in the United States and determined that Kentucky Lake, on the Tennessee River, had ideal conditions for pearl production.

In 1980, Latendresse created his pearl farm. Working with man named Bob Keast Sr. (and several members of Bob Keast's family), he implanted hundreds of Tennessee River Washboard Mussels with small pieces of mussel shells and set them off in the water in nets. Then they waited five years. At the end of that five years they pulled the mussels up, cracked them open, and harvested the pearls inside.

Bob Keast, who runs the Tennessee River Pearl Farm

Here are two other things we should point out:

  • In describing the practice of pearl farming, we are oversimplifying. (There are many tricks to the trade that Bob Keast Jr., who now runs the Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm, keeps secret. For example, the "seed" placed in the mussel that eventually becomes the pearl varies in size, shape and content).
  • The Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm is the only pearl farm in North America. However, pearls are not the only pearl-related export from Tennessee. Many of the pearl farms in Asia use Tennessee River Mussels (of various species) to create pearls in Asia. So there is an entire industry that harvests mussels from the bottom of the river and exports them. About 250 Tennesseans make their living as divers, swimming to the river bottom to pull these mussels up.

Onto the pearl farm itself, which is located at the Birdsong Resort and Marina, near Camden.

Here are a few things you'll see there.

The Birdsong Resort and Marina is quite an operation -- kind of a cross between a freshwater resort, harbor, boat dealership and museum. When you walk in, this is what the place looks like.




There is a short film that we recommend you watch, and there are a lot of items and articles that tell you the indepth story of the place. Perhaps the most important story ever published about this place was in National Geographic (the August 1985 issue).






This is also, of course, a good place to buy pearls. And just look at some of the different shapes and sizes they produce!




Assuming you take the full tour (see note at the end of this tour about cost), you'll then go outside and take the short trip over to the pearl farm itself. On this particular day, Bob Keast took us out on the very short pontoon boat ride to the where the mussels are kept (an area you can easily see from the pier). The farm doesn't look like much, to be honest. All you can see is a series of poles holding together nets that, subsequently, contain hundreds of mussels.


Here's Bob Keast pulling a mussel out of the net.






And here is a close-up view of the mussel that he chose to crack open on this particular day. Remember that mussels aren't plants; they're animals.





And it isn't easy to crack open a mussel. Here you see Bob struggling over it a bit.





And here you see what a mussel looks like when opened. As a side note, mussels are edible. Native Americans used to eat them regularly; there are still piles of mussel shells along rivers such as the Harpeth that we believe were left over from someone eating a feast centuries ago. Today people don't eat mussels very often (although people frequently eat oysters, which are basically the salt water variety).



Now look closely at this mussel. You see the part right next to his finger? That's a pearl! In fact there were three pearls in this particular mussel.






And here you see what one of the pearls looks like once it is wedged out of the mussel meat.

For more information, click here to visit the official web site of the Birdsong Resort and Marina. Please be aware that there is an admission price to visit the pearl farm and museum.

If you would like more information about Tennessee's freshwater mussel industry, click here to be taken to an informative page produced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. And for a wonderful page that tells you more about mussels, click here to be taken to a page produced by Southwest Missouri State University.

Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm

The Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm is located in Benton County.