November 2015

Delia Ray

How Iowa lost its buttons
Did you know buttons used to be made from shells? Delia Ray didn’t, but when she found out, an idea sparked. Her seventh book, Finding Fortune, is set in a town inspired by Muscatine, Iowa, the former Pearl Button Capital of the World.
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Did you know buttons used to be made from shells? Delia Ray didn’t, but when she found out, an idea sparked. Her seventh book, Finding Fortune, is set in a town inspired by Muscatine, Iowa, the former Pearl Button Capital of the World.

The shell-buttons were clam and mussel, pulled from the Mississippi River in the early to mid-1900s by men, women and children who camped on the riverbanks and labored in factories. “It was a short-lived industry,” Ray says from her Iowa City home. “The rivers were harvested, the shells disappeared, plastic technology came along.”

This intriguing, little-known aspect of American history first came to Ray’s attention during a family vacation to Florida 10 years ago, when she, her husband and their three daughters paid a rainy-day visit to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. There among the showier seashells were humble clamshells, about the size of your hand, with numerous round circles punched out of them, plus a notation about a place far from Florida: Muscatine, Iowa.

“Among all the really impressive conch shell displays, 'Iowa' jumped out at me,” Ray says. She had no idea that Muscatine, just 45 minutes from her family’s home, had a rich button history. 

Thanks to her curious and inventive mind, Ray has a special talent for ferreting out pockets of American history and folding them into compelling stories. Her career began with a nonfiction book for young readers about the Klondike Gold Rush (Gold! The Klondike Adventure, published in 1989 and now out of print), which sent her to the Yukon Territory in search of information about 1890s gold-seekers.

“The best part is when it all comes together—the research, finding a way to tell the story and also just introducing kids to little slices of history they don’t know about,” says Ray.

It all comes together in Finding Fortune, an entertaining, often moving novel centered on 12-year-old Ren (short for Renata) and one memorable summer rife with growing pains, new friends, a decades-old mystery and Ren’s heartfelt question, “Why do things always have to change?”

In Ren’s world, the most vexing changes are family-centric: Her father’s due back soon from a military tour in Afghanistan, but her mom’s spending a lot of time with a guy named Rick. Ren doesn’t understand why nobody’s as upset as she is, and when she sees an ad for available rooms in a boardinghouse, she decides to run away—on a small scale, in terms of distance (the town of Fortune is only a few miles away) and population (down to 12 residents). 

The boardinghouse is the former Fortune Consolidated School, owned by the elderly Hildy, a one-time Pearl Button Queen (circa 1950) who’s determined to turn the former gym into a museum of the town’s vibrant button-making past. Ren also meets quirky kid Hugh, who lives in the library; handyman Garrett, who’s making a labyrinth out of clamshells on the old baseball diamond; and eccentric, soap-making sisters who live in the music room. There’s also a mystery afoot, one that dates back to when Hildy’s late father was one of the most skilled shell-cleaners in town. 

“Hildy was one of the first characters that came to me,” Ray says. “I knew I had to have a former Pearl Button Queen. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, her riding in a giant clamshell down the street.” (There are photos and historical details in the back of the book, including a fabulous shot of a lovely button queen.)

Another source of inspiration for Finding Fortune was “a modern-day ghost towns article in the Des Moines Register. It said that Iowa had more towns with [a population of] 500 or less . . . than any other state in the nation. That fascinated me.” The article mentioned the tiny town of Le Roy, as well as abandoned button-making towns along the Mississippi River. 

“There were 13 people living [in Le Roy] at the time of the article’s [publication], and by the time I got there, even fewer,” says Ray. “It was such a haunting experience to drive up and down the streets, see where the sidewalks had been, old park benches, an abandoned playground, an elementary school.”

Ray takes special pleasure in visiting places like this, imagining a deserted town in its heyday. “[It’s an] odd collection of people who end up in places like that,” she says. “So when I was writing Finding Fortune, I was imagining what kind of characters would rent out a place like [the former school], who would end up there.”

She also visited Muscatine’s Pearl Button Museum, an experience she describes with great enthusiasm: “They were very kind and gracious about spending time showing me things in the museum, and taking me to see the abandoned button factory. We wandered along the Mississippi River, and the director showed me where the old clamming camps had been.” 

As a children’s author, Ray says, “One of the most fun parts of what I do is school visits. I love talking to fourth- through sixth-graders. They have no qualms about saying, Wow! Cool! They’re not cynical at all.”

Cool, indeed: Finding Fortune will have readers marveling at Ray’s captivating, contemplative, often thrilling storytelling—and the weird, wonderful back story of something as simple as buttons.


This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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