Elwell considered for National Rivers Hall of Fame

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W.H.C. Elwell, the world’s largest fresh water pearl dealer, stands with Emma Big Bear outside his McGregor business. Elwell is being considered for induction into the National Rivers Hall of Fame. (Submitted photo)

McGregor figure was world’s largest fresh water pearl dealer


By Audrey Posten, Times Register


McGregor historical figure W.H.C. Elwell, known as the world’s largest fresh water pearl dealer, is being considered for induction into the National Rivers Hall of Fame.


“This is the first time he’s been nominated. It is somewhat unusual to be included on the slate, to successfully make the cut, the first time you’re proposed,” said John “Corky” Bickel, Elwell’s great-grandson. “The national board of advisors has a treasure trove of those who have been considered and select among those.”


The nomination is special to Bickel, whose father founded and created the National Rivers Hall of Fame. 


“He spent 20 years in this process, going up and down the river and talking to people who had a connection with the river—people who had industries, boat building companies, captains from the boats, the executives of the barge industry—about this concept,” Bickel recalled. “The National Rivers Hall of Fame does not restrict itself to the Mississippi River. It’s the entirety of the river system of our country, with the Mississippi, of course, being the largest in our country and the fourth largest in the world.”


Sixty individuals from around the country were selected to serve on the initial advisory board and, in 1985, the National Rivers Hall of Fame found its home at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.


“The purpose is to collect, preserve and tell the stories of the men and women who have a connection to the rivers of America, and also to honor those notable individuals who have a river connection,” Bickel shared. “Induction goes to deceased individuals who have distinguished themselves in unique ways.”


Inductees include early explorers like Lewis and Clark and Marquette and Joliet, musicians like Louis Armstrong, artists who have a connection with the river, notable captains, princes of industry and environmentalists.


Elwell has a unique story too. 


Born in Rural Dale, Ohio, on March 21, 1861, William Harry Clarence Elwell moved to McGregor with his wife Georgia and their three children in 1893.  A self-taught and self-made man, he worked as a traveling salesman prior to living in Iowa. He started as a clerk at Stowe’s Grocery Store when the family moved to McGregor.


The button industry was flourishing at that time, said Bickel, thanks to a German immigrant who developed a machine that could cut a disk of clam shell from the shell itself. Before that, the main source for buttons was wood and bone.


“The clammers would use the meat to feed their hogs, then finish them with corn,” Bickel explained. “There was no market for pearls—they were overlooked.”


One day, a clammer came into Stowe’s. He needed food for his family, but had no money. Speaking to Elwell, he proposed a trade for a pearl.


“Elwell had gotten a publication from Ohio that had a small ad in it: ‘We buy fresh water pearls.’ He took a chance and traded the man food for the pearl,” said Bickel. “The food came out of his salary, so it was a real risk.”


His first pearls sold for just a dollar but, undaunted, Elwell invested $12 (the equivalent of $375 today) in more pearls. They didn’t do much better, but his eye for quality—and his new business venture—began to evolve. 


“He saw an opportunity, he saw a vision, and he continued to buy and sell pearls,” Bickel shared.


According to the National Rivers Hall of Fame application, Elwell purchased pearls from approximately 1,000 clammers and fishermen working on the Mississippi River between McGregor and Waukon Junction. He was a principal player in the pearl rush of the late 1890s and, still in his 30s, put thriving McGregor on the map even more.


Elwell’s national network stretched from the Midwest to the East Coast, then, internationally, to Europe, the Middle East, India and beyond. 


“He developed a business that brought people from all over the world to this area to buy pearls. He would also take extended trips abroad to sell pearls. That business flourished, and he was able to develop that into being the world’s largest fresh water pearl dealer,” Bickel said.


In the late 1930s, one single shipment of pearls to Bombay, India, netted $10,000, or $190,000 in today’s standards. 


“The most expensive pearl he sold was $50,000,” noted Bickel, who likes to speculate Elwell’s pearls have even reached royalty.


“The Queen of England has fresh water pearls in her crown, and it’s uncertain whether they came from Elwell, but by virtue of the fact he was the world’s largest dealer, they could have,” he quipped.


Elwell was able to weather the rising Japanese market in cultured pearls in the late 1920s, as well as the Great Depression the following decade.


“The pearl business took a turn, and he remained one of the only dealers,” Bickel said. “During the Depression, in one year, he was able to sell $36,000 worth of pearls, which in today’s money is $1 million.”


Elwell sustained a nearly 40-year run, until his death in 1943, as the pre-eminent pearl dealer of the world. He also created an ice business and sold marine engines, employing others in his business enterprises, in addition to being a respected naturalist and friend of Native Americans.


“Emma Big Bear and her family would come to his shop and he would sell their baskets and bead work. They would come to his house in the evening and his wife would fill their baskets with food,” Bickel recalled.


Bickel labeled his great-grandfather’s story as one of persistence.


“He was really the last remaining fresh water pearl dealer on the river system of our country. Others have followed, and there are dealers who exist today. They have been successful, but none enjoyed the esteem he did,” Bickel shared.


According to Bickel, the decision to submit Elwell now for inclusion in the National Rivers Hall of Fame was to celebrate the 175th anniversary of McGregor’s founding.


“Clearly he’s not that old, but we thought it would be nice to coincide with that,” Bickel said.


He, along with his sister Bonnie and the McGregor Historical Museum, helped develop the application. Information came from publications and photographs, as well as family history.


“One of the major ones was my father, John Bickel, who was a historian, and he collected a body of information about his grandfather. My father personally knew W.H.C. Elwell, and would have been in his mid-20s when Elwell died. He learned first-hand about him,” Bickel said. “He also would have learned about him from his mother, aunt and uncle—the three Elwell children.”


Bickel said the nomination process goes through the National Rivers Hall of Fame advisory board and board of directors, along with the directors of the Dubuque County Historical Society, which oversees the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. 


“There are normally seven to nine nominees who come up for consideration, and they’re voted on, and the top four are then placed in nomination. Those top four this year include W.H.C. Elwell,” stated Bickel. 


Now, the nationwide membership of the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium National Rivers Hall of Fame will vote. Bickel said the top two vote-getters will be inducted. That announcement should come in early November, at the museum’s Captain’s Ball.

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