Archives staff have been hard at work attempting to save a 100 year old map of Evansville. The map below had been folded 8 times and placed in an envelope for much of that time. The blue bin in the photo serves as a re-hydration chamber used to get moisture back into this brittle document. Once it was able to be opened without tearing, we used the weights on top of the blue bin to help flatten the map over the period of a week. Today, we are repairing the rips and tears that are ever present in a map this old. It is coming along nicely! Look for it this fall at the Evansville Museum of Art, History, and Science.
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.
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.
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.
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
This week’s post comes from Intern Jessica who did a little digging into Vanderburgh County’s history in the Civil War.
HEADQUARTERS HARPER’S FERRY, September 13, 1862.
Commanding Maryland Heights:
‘Since I returned to this side, on close inspection I find your position more defensible than it appears when at your station. Covered as it is at all points by the cannon of Camp Hill, you will hold on, and can hold on, until the cows’ tails drop off.’
Colonel Second Infantry, Commanding.
Being an intern at the Vanderburgh County Archives is like embarking on a meandering journey through time. Every day we wade through the written sea of peoples’ officially documented lives. Most of the time one generally knows what will be in this book or that box. Other times, you come across something you were not expecting. A title or description will spark your interest, and before you know it you will be totally immersed, as if the shades of the past are beckoning you to delve deeper.
A book arrived in the office recently that is of great importance to the historical record of Vanderburgh County. The large bound volume is a soldier pension registry from 1890
What is so significant is that the vast majority of the entries are of soldiers who served in the Civil War (1861-1865). There are very few of these volumes in existence. Upon opening it one finds detailed information on the residents of the county who served: their name, regiment, family, and address if they were still living. What makes this so compelling is that it records each soldier’s wounds received during service, and where and when they occurred. Using this information, it is possible to track many Evansville soldiers’ movements throughout the war and construct a general idea of their personal experience of the conflict.
Reading the entries one is simultaneously saddened at the loss of life and limb, and morbidly fascinated and simply ecstatic that something like this exists. I discovered that residents of Evansville served in a number of famous and strategic battles of the war, ranging from the Midwest through the South, including: Shiloh, Fort Donelson, Chickamauga, Perryville, Pittsburgh Landing, Nashville, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Grand Bayou, Atlanta, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania courthouse. The entries record, often graphically, the nature of the injuries each soldier received and whether he perished or survived.
Henry Roettger was one such soldier. His entry states that he volunteered as a private in the 15th Indiana Battery of light artillery. I found myself totally invested in his rather poignant tale when I read along the column and saw the concise note in wounds received: ‘Ribs broke caused by falling cannon and ruptured. Harper’s Ferry Va. 1862.
Now, for some strange reason, I was hooked. I just had to know more. Did he stay in the war after the incident? Could I possibly capture some of the essence of what he would have experienced?
Through further research I found that he was a native of Germany and had only been a resident of Evansville since the mid-1850s. He volunteered in January of 1862 around the age of 30. He became a private in the 15th Indiana Battery of light artillery, mustered in Indianapolis.
This picture is of Union soldiers boarding a train from Evansville. Perhaps Henry is waiting in that crowd somewhere:
He found himself in Harper’s Ferry by September. The cannon fell on him on the 5th of September, before the battle took place. Perhaps it was an accident during the arrangement of gun emplacements. Conceivably he was recovering amidst the chaos of Confederate cannon fire. The report of one Lieutenant Binney illustrates the atmosphere around the 15th Indiana:
‘The cannonading is tremendous since 2 p.m. Colonel Miles still hopes for assistance, but still determined to hold on until his last shell has been fired. Our subsistence short; our long-range ammunition exhausted almost, hardly enough for another day’s defense…The cannonading is now terrific. Colonel Miles expressed a wish that he could be everywhere at the same time.’
It was plausible that Henry had to be treated for a grievous injury while being sufficiently sheltered from the heavy fire upon the Union troops, perhaps in a hospital behind the lines and away from the center of the fighting, and then have to contend with the aftermath. Colonel Miles would be mortally wounded by the end of the battle, and Henry’s regiment would surrender with hundreds of others. It is unclear whether he would have shared the fate of his comrades. Fortunately, they were paroled and he would have traveled all the way back to Indiana where he was discharged in November 1862.
Henry Roettger’s war service lasted less than a year. After leaving the army he married, lived in Missouri and spent his last days in Evansville. He lived to file his own pension claim in 1890 but would be dead 9 years later. He received a veteran’s grave marker and rests in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. The book that I was holding in my hand was the same one that Henry himself had stood before and had related to the official the toll that the war had taken.
Thus by choosing a random name from a book I had found myself pulled into that person’s life more deeply than I had anticipated. Of course this book contains data extremely useful for any student of military history. However, they are not merely static words on a page. The information within, in a incorporeal sense, is a gateway to capturing fleeting glimpses of people otherwise lost to the sight of us all living in the tangible world of the present.
Part 2 of this Week’s I Found it in the Archives post from Intern Paul:
A Man’s Impact
In recent weeks we pulled some boxes from the warehouse and inside them were a number of Waterway Journals with a mailing label addressed to Henry A. Meyer of 516 Read Street. Naturally, I wondered who this man was and this is what I found:
Henry A. Meyer was a man who merely stood at only five feet tall, but that did not stand for the type of person he was. Anyone who knew him looked up to him. Meyer was a teacher by profession, although he had many other hobbies like being a history and a nationally respected stamp collector. His interests in history were the Civil War and the Ohio River.
Henry A Meyer was a prominent member of the Evansville community. He was born 23 March 1894 and he died 25 March 1968. In his life time he attended Baker Elementary School, Evansville High School, Indiana University, The National German-American Seminary in Milwaukee, and on top of that he graduated magna cum laude from the University of Evansville in 1926. He was a Central High School teacher and in his free time he was a member of 17 philatelic organizations, 8 historical societies, and 3 education associations. He was a committee member at the museum that helped to put together the River Room. He also was a big help in organizing the Museum’s department of philately, aka stamp collecting. He was an important figure in Evansville History in his life he influenced so many people that in 1966 he was one of only 8 people named to the Central High School Hall of Fame. Meyer is quoted by Tom Ryder as being “the city’s most prominent philanthropist.” Five years after his death a memorial went up for Meyer in the River Room at the museum.
There is no real known reason why Mr. Meyer’s magazines ended up in our possession, but for one thing I can say is that we are happy he did.
This week’s post comes from Intern Paul about a surprising discovering in our Archives.
Recently in cataloging things in the warehouse we have come across 4 boxes of Waterway Journals that included a mailing address in the name of Mr. Henry A. Meyer. Because we don’t have any accession information on these boxes, we do not know how they ended up in as part of our collection. This begs the question of what is a Waterways Journal?
The Waterways Journal has been printed weekly since 1887. Known as “The Riverman’s Bible” as the site says, it was published out of St. Louis, Missouri. We have at least four boxes that we know of that contain issues of the magazine from the years 1943 (four issues) through 1961. Also there were three bound books of magazines from April 1946-through March 1953. The true question of how we got these documents is something that we cannot answer. We can make a hypothesis that these were donated somehow, but beyond that we don’t know why or too whom. All we can do is thank Henry A. Meyer for his contribution to our Archives.
One issue of particular interest is this one from 1943.
A major part of Evansville’s history in the 20th century came from the industries along the Ohio that helped to build the Navy in World War II. A lot of people do not know this, but Indiana led the nation in the war effort. This is major feat in this city’s history and something that should be talked about proudly. Because of Indiana’s war effort many of the industrial plants received the E for excellence banner. This includes some that helped produce the LSTs that traveled along the Ohio River before being put into action. The Army-Navy E for excellence award was an honor presented to businesses for their excellence in production of war equipment. This was an honor given too many places along the Ohio in the State of Indiana; Evansville being the major city where these businesses were headquartered in their production.
* Digital Image Copyright 2014 University of Evansville Libraries. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.
Though this political cartoon by Karl Kae Knecht we can see that the E for excellence award was something very important in the state seeing as it has a prominent position in the picture above. The city may only have the LST left from this grand time of Evansville history, but that surely does not mean it should be forgotten.
Thanks to the University of Evansville Libraries for the use of the Knecht image.
This week’s post comes from Intern Kaitlyn. Like all of us, she was drawn to the pieces of history that we have found that tell the story of how people ended up in our little corner of the world.
At Home in Vanderburgh County
While inventorying the vast amounts of books in the warehouse we have come across an array of names of both people and places. Earlier this semester I came across a name of interest in one of those books, Herman Preetz. I had no idea who he was, but his Declaration of Intent record caught my attention and inspired me to research more about him to see what I could find through the archival record.
Through research I found that Herman Preetz was a German born U.S. citizen that lived in Evansville during the early 1900’s. Preetz emigrated from Bremen, Germany at 25 years of age. He travelled over to the United States on a vessel named The SS Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse and arrived at the port of New York on September 2, 1902. The next time his name appears on record was in 1913 when he signed the Evansville Declaration of Intent book on October 13. While there are few records of Herman Preetz in the period from 1902-1913, it is known that on January 25, 1906 he married his wife Barbara Preetz. There is documented proof that Preetz was accounted for in the 1930 and 1940 census. He passed away in 1946 and was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery alongside his wife.
While I was at first unsure of how much information could be found about this single individual, the more I looked into the various aspects of his life, the more details I found about this man and the more excited I became. The beginning of this information about Preetz was discovered from a Declaration of Intent book found in the warehouse and the rest of the details were found through archival records from other institutions, including online archives. The thing which first caught my attention about Herman was through the Declaration of Intent book. This book was a record of immigrants coming into America and declaring their intent to be a U.S. citizen. This process included renouncing their past governmental leaders from their home countries and swearing to abide by the laws and rules of the United States.
If material can be gathered about the life of one man, imagine what the records could tell us about Evansville or Vanderburgh County as a whole! While the life of Herman Preetz can be found through the archives at the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s Office, he is but one name in one book amongst thousands that we hold in storage. Who or what can you find of interest from your next search through our archives?