Button Lathe and Cooling Casket

Taking a lunch break with my mules at Stephenson’s General Store in Leavenworth, Indiana, I was reminded of one of my favorite books, “Shanty Boat” by Harlan Hubbard. The book is the account of Harlan’s 7 year journey down the Ohio and MIssissippi Rivers in his shanty boat. Accompanying Harlan were his wife Anna, a few dogs and occasionally, a hive of bees.

Bernie Harberts, mule, trail ride, catfish

Harland traveled the river with dogs and bees. I’m visiting with mules Brick and Cracker. Here, Brick cooling her heels under the cotton wood tree in front of Stephenson’s General Store (Leavenworth, IN)

During my lunch break, I stepped in to the store for some provisions.

Bernie Harberts, mule, trail ride, catfish

Store owners Judy and Tony Gallina

Inside, I found relics from the river life Harlan wrote about. A shell button lathe used to make what were called “pearl buttons”. A cooling casket. Black and white photos of what the town looked like shortly before Harlan’s era. If memory serves, he floated the river in the mid-to-late 1940s, just as this era of river life was closing.

button lathe

A working button lathe. The buttons were cut from the shells harvested in the Ohio River.

button lathe

A Leavenworth pearl button factory back in the day.

cooling casket

A cooling casket. The sign propped up on the casket read, “Sometimes it could not be determined if a person was actually dead or not. Perhaps a person was in a coma, had a seizure, or some other medical condition where a pulse could not be easily detected. They could be placed in a cooling casket to see if they would revive. The ultimate goal was to make sure no one was being buried alive.”

The casket is what struck me most.

Here I am, a guy walking across Indiana with 2 mules. You could say I’m playing at living old fashioned. Lots of folks I talk to say, “man, wouldn’t it be good to back to the old days like you. Live slower. Take our time.”

I agree it would serve the world well to chill out a bit. Take a breather now and again. But looking at that casket. Looking at the photo of the men slaving away making pearl buttons. That reminded me how good we have things now. Of how I want to live, now, not 100 years ago.

No, if I get knocked out on my mule one day, I don’t want someone to pop the pearl buttons off my shirt, stretch me out in a cooling coffin and sit around fanning my face with a hankie to see if I revive. Hell no. I want someone to call the ambulance, truck me off to the hospital and get some modern medicine coursing through my veins.

Riding these shores, I fantasize about floating down the Ohio River with my wife Julia, just as Harlan did with Anna. But I harbor no illusions I want to go back in time to do it.

No, riding along the banks of the Ohio out here in Indiana, I’m fine living with my mules right here in the here and now.

button lathe

The Ohio River looking from the Kentucky side in to Indiana.

2019-05-25 10:27:28

Beautiful post B. The photos and words are well chosen. I’m getting a real sense of that place. I’d never heard of a cooling casket before. It’s amazing the kinds of “all over the place” (I guess the word is random) things you learn when the trip just happens instead of being planed.

Bernie Harberts
2019-05-29 21:30:23

This trip was a departure for me in that I didn’t have a set theme I set out to look for. Turns out there’s tons of interesting ideas to pursue. Sometimes it’s nice to take a wider view and let the vision of a voyage develop and grow agenda-free.
Glad to hear you enjoyed the post!


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