The Pearl Rush


Brodhead's Pearl Industry

Living just a handful of blocks from the Sugar River, walking its bank with our dogs is one of our favorite enjoyments. Little did I suspect that in researching Miles McNair, that I would learn of a booming pearl industry harvested right from our river. The naming of Pearl Island here in town suddenly made more sense :)

Considering the romantic and lavish aesthetics of Victorian times, it is no wonder pearls held value higher than that of diamonds. Pearls from the Sugar River were so exquisite, pearls from the river are housed as part of Crown Jewels collection in the Tower of London.

It is estimated that $300,000.00 of pearls were collected during the rush, which translates to $8,000,000.00 in today's dollars. One of the most successful pearl harvesters was W. H. Murray of Brodhead, and it is reported that he earned enough in one year of pearling, that he was able to purchase his own farm with the earnings.

"Imagine that you’re living in south-central Wisconsin during the late 1800’s. You make $10 a week and have to spend most of that money on food and shelter. Suddenly you read a story in the town newspaper about a local resident who found a pearl in Sugar River and sold it for $100. Later you read another story of another pearl found in the river that sold for even more money. So what’s a hard-working Wisconsin citizen going to do? Jump in the Sugar River and search for your own pearl, of course!"
Running through Brodhead's area known as the Pearl Island corridor, is the Mill Race Waterway; a man-made tributary extending from the Sugar River. This is where local citizens funded the hand-digging of this canal in the 1860's to provide water power for a mill, foundry, and 2nd in the state access to electricity. Sunnyside benefitted from Brodhead's early access to electricity, and still has several of the original candelabra fixtures from over 125 years ago ... but alas, this electrifying history has so much more to be shared, deserving its own post coming soon ...

Sources: Kloiber Jewelers , The Court Jeweller , Historical Portraits Image Gallery , Brodhead Chamber of CommerceLower Sugar River Watershed Association