Although the practice of digging mussel mud is all but gone, it has left a lasting impression on Islanders and played a very important role in the history and development of Island agriculture. The early years of farming on PEI saw the land lose its ability to grow more than weeds. It quickly became apparent that there was a need for quality manure to be spread on the fields and give them new life. After using several kinds, it was determined that the lime-rich mud from many Island river beds provided the renewal that was so desperately needed. This substance would come to be known as “mussel mud” and consisted primarily of oyster shells that were rich with lime and had a long-term impact on the crops. Using Island innovation, horse powered machines were developed to make the harvest of the mud as easy as possible. For generations, load after load of mud was taken from the water during the winter and spread on the fields. Many swear by the effectiveness of the substance, Read More
Although the practice of digging mussel mud is all but gone, it has left a lasting impression on Islanders and played a very important role in the history and development of Island agriculture. The early years of farming on PEI saw the land lose its ability to grow more than weeds. It quickly became apparent that there was a need for quality manure to be spread on the fields and give them new life. After using several kinds, it was determined that the lime-rich mud from many Island river beds provided the renewal that was so desperately needed. This substance would come to be known as “mussel mud” and consisted primarily of oyster shells that were rich with lime and had a long-term impact on the crops.

Using Island innovation, horse powered machines were developed to make the harvest of the mud as easy as possible. For generations, load after load of mud was taken from the water during the winter and spread on the fields. Many swear by the effectiveness of the substance, claiming huge differences in yields from fields that mud compared with those that didn’t. With the introduction of cheap lime from the Mainland and the fear that the mussel mud caused potatoes to scab, the use of mud as a fertilizer died off in the 1940s except for a brief revival in the late 1980's. Now little more than a memory, mussel mud was a very important aspect of farming on Prince Edward Island for more than a century.


© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

Painting by George Ackerman circa 1880.

George Ackerman
Confederation Centre Art Gallery

© Confederation Centre Art Gallery


Model Mussel Mud Digger

It is not known who can take credit for inventing the first mussel mud digging machine but the machine can be described as a marvel of Island ingenuity. The mud digger consists of the head frame and floor, shaft, brake, capstan, pulley, chain, reel and dogsill. A horse provided the power and was hooked to the shaft by a swing. As the horse was led around the capstan, it in turn would draw in the chain, resulting in the bucket being lifted from the bottom of the river. Once the bucket was lifted from the water, the workers used a release mechanism at the far end of the arm to dump the bucket into a waiting sleigh attached to second horse.

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.


Like many things in Prince Edward Island’s history, the use of mussel mud and the innovations that were developed to harvest it was born of necessity. As new settlers farmed the land, which was not very rich to begin with, it began to quickly lose the nutrients that were needed for good growing conditions. It was obvious that there was going to be a need to manure the fields as early as 1767 when surveyor Charles Morris reported that the soil was producing little other than weeds in several locations around the colony.

The term “manure” is derived from the Middle English word, manouren, which literally means to do work by hand. The word became commonly used to describe the process of enriching the land through the process of applying organic material. Any organic material that is applied to the land for this purpose can be referred to as manure. In more recent decades the word has become synonymous with the animal waste that is often used in the process.

Like many things in Prince Edward Island’s history, the use of mussel mud and the innovations that were developed to harvest it was born of necessity. As new settlers farmed the land, which was not very rich to begin with, it began to quickly lose the nutrients that were needed for good growing conditions. It was obvious that there was going to be a need to manure the fields as early as 1767 when surveyor Charles Morris reported that the soil was producing little other than weeds in several locations around the colony.

The term “manure” is derived from the Middle English word, manouren, which literally means to do work by hand. The word became commonly used to describe the process of enriching the land through the process of applying organic material. Any organic material that is applied to the land for this purpose can be referred to as manure. In more recent decades the word has become synonymous with the animal waste that is often used in the process.


© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

A full scale Mussel Mud digger.

Keir Memorial Museum

© Keir Memorial Museum


An explanation of the use of certain innovations used to harvest Mussel Mud

Using Island innovation, horse-powered machines were developed to make the harvest of the mud as easy as possible. Most of the device was made from wood harvested from the Island forests. A horse was used to power the capstan, which was located at one end of the device. As the horse walked around the capstan it in turn would draw in the chain, lifting the heavy metal scoop from the bottom of the river carrying the nutrient-rich mud with it. On the other end of the device, several men would then push the arm forward and then trip the release mechanism dropping the mud into a waiting sleigh. The design allowed both horses to fit within the space between the capstan and the hole in the ice. On the capstan would be another release that, when tripped, would drop the arm back into the water to scoop up another load. The pulley was not fixed to the centre of the device. When the scoop was empty and the weight was off the arm, a man could push the pulley to one side or the other which would allow digging in an adjacent spot.

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.


From the beginnings of agriculture on PEI there have been a wide variety of materials used as manure with varying degrees of success. Some of the items that were used included ashes, seaweed, dead animals, and beginning around 1860, something that would come to be known as "mussel mud." Improperly named, mussel mud is a lime-rich substance that was taken from the bottom of Island rivers. Although the content of the mud varies from one location to the next, the main component is in fact, oyster shells, and not mussels as the name would suggest. One account of the various components of the mud came in 1886 when Francis Bain wrote in The Prince Edward Island Agriculturalist that

Oysters, mussels, quahogs, clams, the showy valved petracola and the ebony littorina, the delicate cuminia and the great rugged spired urosalpinx, corraline and starfish, sponge and protozoa lived on and were entombed in its mass, while a thousand harvests of algae added their varied Read More

From the beginnings of agriculture on PEI there have been a wide variety of materials used as manure with varying degrees of success. Some of the items that were used included ashes, seaweed, dead animals, and beginning around 1860, something that would come to be known as "mussel mud." Improperly named, mussel mud is a lime-rich substance that was taken from the bottom of Island rivers. Although the content of the mud varies from one location to the next, the main component is in fact, oyster shells, and not mussels as the name would suggest. One account of the various components of the mud came in 1886 when Francis Bain wrote in The Prince Edward Island Agriculturalist that

Oysters, mussels, quahogs, clams, the showy valved petracola and the ebony littorina, the delicate cuminia and the great rugged spired urosalpinx, corraline and starfish, sponge and protozoa lived on and were entombed in its mass, while a thousand harvests of algae added their varied foliage to swell its riches.

The merits of the lime-filled mud was known on the Island as far back as the 1820s when one Islander reported back to the British Empire that “it was known by experience that the application of shell-mud increased the fertility for 10 or 12 years to the soil.” However there was little mud put on the fields at this time because it was so hard to dig up. In the earliest days of mussel-mud harvesting, the mud was dug in the summer at low tide and transported in a small boat after the tide rose high enough to take the boat as close to shore as possible. The work was dirty and difficult and for many that owned small farms not worth the great effort that was required.


© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

Loading sleighs with Mussel Mud

David Weale

© David Weale


Diggers returning to O’Leary, PEI.

David Weale

© David Weale


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • explain the main reason why PEI started to harvest Mussel Mud;
  • gather enough information to describe the beginning of the Irish Moss industry;
  • explain what makes this industry unique.

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