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Explore the Historic Fairport Biological Station

Historic Fairport Hatchery

The Untold Story of Fairport Fish Hatchery
Fairport Fish Hatchery Historic Trials Map

Funded by a $47,400 REAP Conservation Education Program grant, the historic interpretive trail system throughout the 60-acre Fairport Hatchery site is open for the public to explore.

The North Trail tells the story of the living quarters where staff lived. The South Trail highlights the Fairport Hatchery operational facilities both past and present. Eighteen stops along the trails feature interpretive signs about each historic site, many of which include QR Codes directing visitors online to more in-depth video content about each sign.

Historic North Trail

#1 Low-Pressure Cistern (1912-1961)

#2 Water Tank (1961-1990s)

#3 High-Pressure Cistern (1912-1960)

#4 Scientific Assistant’s Cottage and Garage (1910-1950s)

#5 Director’s Cottage (1910-1962)

#6 Foreman’s Cottage and Garage (1912-1963)

#7 Shell Expert’s Cottage and Garage (1912-1935)

#8 Superintendent’s Cottage (1910-1954)

#9 Living Quarters Entrance (1910-1960)



Historic South Trail

#10 Barn (1910-Present)

#11 Main Laboratory (1914-1917; 1920-1974)

#12 Tank House (1910-1953)

#13 Fish Ponds (1910-Present)

#14 Temporary Laboratory (1910-1914)

#15 Boathouse (1910-1954)

#16 Pumphouse (1914-2021)

#17 Pottery Factory (1860s-1900s)

#18 Main Reservoir (1910-Present)

History of the Fairport Fish Hatchery

The Fairport Fish Hatchery (formerly known as the Fairport Biological Station) is located along the scenic Mississippi River on Highway 22, eight miles east of Muscatine in Muscatine County. The Fairport Biological Station has a long and storied history.

John Boepple manufactures first freshwater pearl buttons. By 1900 over 60 button companies in Muscatine area employ over 50 percent of labor force.

Scientists urge need to  protect mussels from over-harvesting and pollution. Grand Opening of Second Laboratory after original  burned down in 1917.

Crowfoot hook for harvesting mussels is invented, less damaging to mussel beds. By the early 1900s, scientists and button company owners realized that mussel overharvesting had depleted the resources to the extent that the industry was no longer sustainable. Researchers and industrialists believed that if they could artificially propagate mussels, they could reintroduce mussels into the Mississippi and other rivers and restore populations to earlier numbers. 

Button industry acknowledges urban and industrial waste is degrading riverine habitats and contributing to decline of mussel populations.

US Congress establishes the Fairport Biological Station (FBS).  First interior research facility of the Bureau of Fisheries.

By the mid-1930s, the name of the facility was changed to the Fairport Fish Cultural Station. The station focused on raising and cultivating fish for farm ponds during the Depression. The scope of work and labor force at the hatchery were greatly reduced due to the Depression and then World War II. Many of the buildings were abandoned (e.g., the living quarters) or underutilized.

Congress authorizes Army Corps to construct 23 dams between MN and IL to maintain a 9 feet channel for commerce. Dams eliminate natural stream flow, increase sedimentation, and destroy habitat for many mussels and fish species.

Pearl button industry Labor Strike/Owner’s Lockout in Muscatine; 1 policeman killed, Iowa National Guard and Pinkerton’s called in to quell unrest.

The laboratory was reopened to house German POWs. Between April and November, more than 300 prisoners passed through “Camp Muscatine” (no more than 85 at any one time) before being released. Most POWs worked at the H.J. Heinz Plant, but some worked at a canning plant in Wapello and others in the fruit and vegetable fields in “Muscatine Island.” 

After the last of the POWs were removed in December 1945, operations at the hatchery slowly returned to focusing on fish cultivation (catfish, bluegill, bass, carp, and buffalo fish) for rivers, lakes, and ponds in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.

Keokuk Hydroelectric dam built.  The dam prevents skipjack herring from migrating upstream thereby eliminating ebonyshell mussels in the Upper Mississippi, the button industry’s preferred mussel.

Plastic buttons manufactured on a wide scale. Button companies close to transition to make plastic buttons.

Grand Opening of FBS attended by US Congress members, Secretary of Dept. of Commerce, 100s of researchers, 5,000+ people.

The catastrophic flood of 1951 brought sweeping changes to the hatchery. Most hatchery operations ceased and several buildings were damaged. The pumphouse was converted into a joint pumphouse and  holding house with 12 concrete tanks inside the building. The upper series of 12 irregular shallow ponds were reconfigured to form 10 (currently nine) rectangular deeper ponds. Six ponds were excavated in the largely undeveloped area between the railroad tracks and the river.

New buildings (all brick) included a large utility building, which housed a work shop, garages, and office, and a new house and associated garage. With construction of several new buildings and the return to focusing on fish cultivation, several original buildings became obsolete and sold at auction. These buildings included the storehouse/carpenter shop, the original or “temporary” laboratory, one of the living quarters and garage, and the boat house (now the Izaak Walton building on the west side of Fairport).

Peak of button production  in Muscatine - 40,000,000 buttons produced.

New pumphouse is constructed on top of the original temporary laboratory. Last pearl button company in Muscatine goes out of business. Federal funding for the hatchery decreased in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The unoccupied laboratory is demolished. State of Iowa starts new fish stocking program for privately-owned farm ponds.

US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) ceases operations and leases property to Iowa Conversation Commission, later renamed the Department of Natural Resources. The federal government demolished the two and one-half story brick laboratory.

USFWS transfers title of Fairport Fish Hatchery to the Iowa DNR. State Historic  Preservation Office reaffirms their 1984 position that pre-1930s buildings  (pumphouse, barn) are eligible to the National Register of Historic Places.

University of Iowa, Institute of Hydraulic Research - Hydroscience and Engineering constructs the Lucile A. Carver Mississippi River  Environmental Research Station (LACMERS)  to research water quality in the Upper Mississippi River Basin and tributaries.

Friends of Fairport Fish Hatchery formally organized. Recognized as a 501(c)(3) organization by the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine.

The Muscatine County Historic Preservation Commission, with support from FFFH, nominated the 60-acre property to the NRHP as a Historic District with both local and state level significance. The National Park Service determined the Fairport Fish Hatchery eligible to the NRHP as a Historic District. The nomination was approved and the listing posted on Oct. 30, 2023. 

FFFH, with strong support and collaboration with IADNR staff at the hatchery, opened two historic interpretive trails on Earth Day. FFFH and IADNR added a large (3 feet x 4 feet) trail map in the spring along with a new pedestrian bridge and a six-foot timeline in the fall. Trail map brochures allow for self-guided tours of the interpretive trails. The interpretive signs include QR codes for visitors to get additional information on a particular building history or function(s). In the future, FFFH and IADNR intend to construct an Educational Pavilion near the main entrance, as well as an observation deck over one of the research ponds.

John F. Boepple, a German immigrant, started the freshwater pearl button industry in Muscatine. Within 10 years, the population of Muscatine doubled, and the pearl button industry employed two-thirds of the labor force.

Button companies quickly spread throughout Iowa, as well as adjacent states and as far as Tennessee.

The facility included a pumphouse/boiler room (the lifeline of the station), a two and one-half story laboratory/dormitory, tank house, boathouse, temporary laboratory (offices), storehouse/carpenter shop, shell testing plant, blacksmith shop, barn, high- and low-pressure cisterns, and five cottages. The station also included a one-acre reservoir, 17 earthen ponds, and 14 small concrete ponds or holding tanks for experimental work. Mussel propagation research continued until 1931 when funding cuts forced the closing of mussel research. Efforts were transferred to a new station in Fort Worth, Texas.

A consortium of Muscatine button company owners purchased 60 acres adjacent to Fairport and sold the land to the US Bureau of Fisheries, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The station opened under temporary facilities in 1910, and formally opened in the fall of 1914. The grand opening was attended by the US Secretary of Commerce, several US Congressmen, numerous state officials, scientists, professors, and Muscatine residents, totaling over 5000 people.

IADNR added an office annex to the administration building and a boat storage building adjacent to the new pumphouse.

The Iowa State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) informed US Fish and Wildlife Service and IADNR that they considered all pre-1930 buildings remaining on the property to be eligible to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

SHPO reconfirmed that assessment when full title was transferred to the IADNR in 1996. Unfortunately, the historic pumphouse was demolished in August of 2021 because it was determined by IADNR to be located within the floodway of the Mississippi River.

Management of the hatchery was transferred to the State of Iowa, Iowa Conservation Commission, now the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IADNR).

IADNR emphasized producing and spawning catfish, largemouth bass, and bluegill for the Iowa Farm Pond Program. They continued to focus their efforts on these fish until about 1990, when the infestation of zebra mussels in the Mississippi River, an invasive species from Asia, required changes in the program. Potential contamination of adult zebra mussels in harvested catfish fingerlings, which are notoriously difficult to hand sort, required catfish production to be moved to the Rathbun hatchery. The Fairport hatchery focused on production of largemouth bass and bluegill for the Farm Pond Program, as well as walleye for interior river stocking. Although the Iowa Farm Pond Program was terminated in 2015, the hatchery continues to raise walleye and bluegill for rivers and lakes throughout Iowa, along with smaller occasional quantities of smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, northern pike, and redear sunfish.