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.
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 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.
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