Found in the Archives: George L. Mesker & Co.

This week’s post in our Found in the Archives series comes from guest blogger Darius Bryjka, one of the foremost experts on the Mesker family businesses, products, and architecture. Darius has been researching the Mesker brothers and documenting their products for over ten years.  He is a project reviewer at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, where this effort began through the ‘got mesker?’ initiative.  You can follow his now independent research work at the Mesker Brothers blog.

The Mesker family name is familiar to most due to Evansville’s Mesker Park Zoo & Botanical Gardens but the history of the family in our community goes back much further.

Mesker Steel

Geo. L. Mesker Steel Corp.  400 Block of First Street; c. 1940s.    Image Courtesy of Willard Library Archives.

A recently unearthed find of a receipt dated 1884 from the George L. Mesker & Co. was documented from our Estate files as part of our initiative to open up our hidden collections.  This piece was featured in our Endangered Heritage display for National Preservation Month where it was seen and brought to Darius’ attention.  This interesting but seemingly insignificant receipt had great meaning to Darius and other Mesker researchers, which he was generously willing to share.  Thank you for your insight, Darius!

The George L. Mesker & Co. receipt and other pieces of the County’s past remain on display at Evansville’s Central Library lobby until May 28th.

After over a decade of researching the architectural iron products of the Mesker companies, it is becoming exceedingly more difficult to find new and undiscovered sources of historic background information. Particularly rare are artifacts relating to the early days of George L. Mesker & Co., one of the largest and most famous architectural iron works in the United States at the turn of the 20th century and founded by Evansville native George Luke Mesker (1857–1936). However, thanks to ongoing efforts by the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s Record and Archives Section to inventory and make available previously unindexed or insufficiently documented public records, a critical piece of evidence related to the company’s founding was recently brought to light.

Receipt from 1884 Estate File

Receipt from 1884;  Estate Files Collection. Vanderburgh County Clerk Archives.

The September 30, 1884 receipt issued to Mrs. Annie L. Jones for a $3 boiler may be trivial in terms of the transaction it documented, but its true significance is far more meaningful. It is not only a beautiful piece of graphic design—with a rich engraving of a heavily ornamented iron cornice and at least half a dozen various Victorian-era typefaces—but also the earliest known printed ephemera of any kind for George L. Mesker & Co., confirming what were previously mere assumptions about the origins of this important company. Many sources erroneously date the beginnings of the company to 1879, but according to Williams’ Evansville City Directories, George worked for his father, John Bernard Mesker (1823–1899) until at least 1883. Between 1883 and 1884 the directories list him as a galvanized iron worker, while “George L. Mesker & Co.” is not listed until the 1886 edition. Since city directories were typically issued at the beginning of a calendar year and contained information from the previous year, a safe assumption was that by 1885 George left J.B. Mesker & Son and established his own company.

413 Main Street, Mount Vernon, Indiana. Despite alterations, the third story retains a galvanized sheet-metal façade believed to be early surviving work of George L. Mesker & Co. Image courtesy of Darius Bryjka.

413 Main Street, Mount Vernon, Indiana. Despite alterations, the third story retains a galvanized sheet-metal façade believed to be early surviving work of George L. Mesker & Co. Image courtesy of Darius Bryjka.

Close up of the 1884 galvanized sheet-metal upper story manufactured by George L. Mesker & Co. Image courtesy of Darius Bryjka.

Close up of the 1884 galvanized sheet-metal upper story manufactured by George L. Mesker & Co. Image courtesy of Darius Bryjka.

 

The rediscovered receipt clearly shows that the company already existed and conducted business in 1884, making it possible to properly attribute early ornamental iron building fronts such as 413 Main Street in Mount Vernon, Indiana, or the Goetzman Brothers Grocery in Old Shawneetown, Illinois (since demolished), whose façade design is similar to the cornice rendered on the receipt. Furthermore, it indicates that in the company’s early days George operated out of his father’s factory at the corner of Fourth and Division Streets, which was apparently the epicenter of family business activity since another of George’s brothers, John Henry Mesker (1855–1898), also housed his iron fences and railings business at the same location. These tightly knit family and business ties are important in understanding the significance of George L. Mesker & Co. as part of a larger family tradition. It’s very likely that the father assisted his sons on these early projects before they fully mastered their craft and established solid reputations of their own. The receipt also confirms a transition, apparently to avoid competition in the family, during which the Evansville Meskers each chose a specialized niche within the sheet-metal and iron market. J.B. Mesker and yet another son Edward Mesker (1860–1898) focused on stove and range manufacture, while the architectural sheet-metal and iron work formerly undertaken by the elder Mesker became George’s specialty.

As is typical of most historic background research, the 1884 receipt by George L. Mesker & Co. answered some questions while raised a few new ones. Hopefully, even more similar surprises still await in the archives.

To learn more about the Mesker companies and their architectural iron products please visit www.meskerbrothers.com

~Darius Bryjka

Endangered Heritage Exhibit

As part of National Preservation Month, the Clerk’s Archives is co-sponsoring the Indiana Historical Society’s Endangered Heritage exhibit. The exhibit will continue to run through the end of May in Central Library’s main lobby, located at 200 SE Martin Luther King Jr, Blvd., Evansville, Indiana.  Indiana’s collecting institutions are at risk of losing many Hoosier memories, and the threat to thousands of historical artifacts and documents in Indiana is real and ongoing. Large and small historical organizations across Indiana face similar challenges about how to preserve the objects and documents that are a part of Indiana’s heritage for future generations.

Endangered Heritage Exhibit Banners 2015

Spring 2015 Intern Paul and Indiana Historical Society Staff Member Jamie set up the display case.

Spring 2015 Intern Paul and Indiana Historical Society Staff Member Jamie set up the display case.

Indiana Historical Society staff member Alan helps set up the banners.

Indiana Historical Society staff member Alan helps set up the banners.

Endangered Heritage gives examples of some of the most common dangers to objects and documents in Hoosier history collections. The exhibit focuses on the needs of heritage collecting organizations for humidity and temperature controls, adequate storage, and funds to care for their collections.  Fortunately, there are solutions to the problems facing Indiana’s heritage collections, and Endangered Heritage suggests ways to help. Visitors to the exhibit will learn how they can assist in preserving Indiana’s history.

We highlighted some items in our collection that are particularly at risk for loss.  We have also displayed some of the many types of documents we collect and what they mean for local history.  Willard Library Archives has generously allowed us to use their local history photographs to help tell our stories.

Highlighting original documents from our collection.

Highlighting original documents from our collection.

Documents from periods throughout Vanderburgh County history with photographs courtesy of Willard Library Archives.

Documents from periods throughout Vanderburgh County history with photographs courtesy of Willard Library Archives.

Documents from periods throughout Vanderburgh County history with photographs courtesy of Willard Library Archives.

Documents from periods throughout Vanderburgh County history with photographs courtesy of Willard Library Archives.

The exhibit is an activity of the Hoosier Heritage Alliance’s Connecting to Collections project and is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). For more information about the Hoosier Heritage Alliance, visit www.indianahistory.org/lhs/hha.

The Hoosier Heritage Alliance brings together major Indiana institutions, all with extensive expertise and experience in collecting cultural artifacts, to ensure the safeguarding and preservation of all of Indiana’s heritage collections. The HHA assists Indiana’s locally-based cultural institutions with effectively preserving the artifacts of the state’s past. The Hoosier Heritage Alliance includes: Indiana Historical Society, Allen County Public Library, Association of Indiana Museums, Carnegie Center for Art and History, Center for History in South Bend, Conner Prairie, Eiteljorg Museum, Evansville Museum, Indiana Landmarks, Indiana State Museum, Indiana State University/Cunningham Memorial Library, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Midwest Collaborative for Library Services and Minnetrista Cultural Foundation.

Untapped Treasures Program

Thanks to the 40 people who came out to spend some time with us at Central Library Saturday for the Untapped Treasures Program.  We met some wonderful people and were able to share some of our wonderful collection of historical documents.

Our Interns, Jessica, Paul, Brad, and Kaitlyn did a wonderful job presenting the research they worked on throughout the semester and presenting some of the skills that they had learned a long the way.  They manned the tables and helped answer questions from attendees.

Overall, a successful first try!

Here are some pictures from our event for those unable to make it.

Jessica assisting a guest with a document.

Jessica assisting a guest with a document.

Brad and Paul manning the table.

Brad and Paul manning the table.

The crowd viewing our historical documents.

The crowd viewing our historical documents.

Interns Kaitlyn, Paul, and Brad share some of their research.

Interns Kaitlyn, Paul, and Brad share some of their research.

Intern Jessica tells the crowd about her research using our Civil War Pension Registry.

Intern Jessica tells the crowd about her research using our Civil War Pension Registry.

Archivist Amber introduces the foundation of our collection.

Archivist Amber introduces the foundation of our collection.

Clerk’s Archives: Untapped Treasures

If you are interested in local history or court history, join us tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. in Central Library’s Browning Room B for our Clerk’s Archives: Untapped Treasures program.

The Vanderburgh County Clerk’s Archives is hosting a program titled Clerk’s Archives: Untapped Treasures on Saturday, May 2nd, as part of Preservation Month activities.  We will be displaying some of the historical documents from the Clerk’s Archives collection and sharing some of the many stories those documents contain.  We hold records from court and county history since 1818.

The Vanderburgh County Clerk’s Archives and the EVPL have cosponsored Endangered Heritage, a collections care traveling exhibition from the Hoosier Heritage Alliance. Endangered Heritage gives examples of some of the most common dangers to objects and documents in Hoosier history collections.    As part of the exhibition, the Clerk’s Office Archives is displaying documents relevant to the exhibition and we have joined with our community partner, Willard Library, who has generously allowed us to use pictures from their archives. This exhibition will be on display in the main lobby of Central Library from May 2nd – May 29th, 2015, located at 200 SE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Evansville, Indiana.

Check out the Evansville Courier and Press Newspaper write up on the Clerk’s Archives here:

http://www.courierpress.com/news/local-news/vanderburgh-county-clerks-office-preserving-citys-storied-history_25191798

Endangered Heritage Flyer

Design Credit: Kayla Smoot, Graphic Designer