The forgotten brother
Bernard, Frank, and George are the best known of the six Mesker brothers. However, one more brother also made important contributions to the ornamental iron work trade in Evansville and the surrounding region.
As Bernard and Frank were establishing a niche for their business in St. Louis, George continued to work for their father in Evansville as a bookkeeper and ironworker at J.B. Mesker & Son. In 1880, he was brought on as a partner and between 1881 and 1882, he headed his father’s firm with another brother, John Henry Mesker (1855–1898). Despite the success of the father’s business, his sons had ambitions of their own. By 1885 George left J.B. Mesker & Son and established his own company, George L. Mesker & Company, eventually building it into the country’s largest architectural ironworks. Both businesses thrived, however, apparently to avoid competition in the family, the Evansville Meskers each chose a specialized niche within the sheet-metal and iron market. J.B. Mesker and his youngest son Edward (1860–1898) focused on stove and range manufacture, while John Henry Mesker, who in 1883 established his own business, J.H. Mesker & Company, dealt with iron fences, railings, and similar building components. The architectural sheet-metal and iron work became George’s specialty. Despite the independent businesses, Mesker family members continued to live and work together. J.B. Mesker & Son and J.H. Mesker & Co. shared a factory space at the intersection of Fourth and Division Streets, although a circa 1885 engraving promoting John Henry’s enterprise brazenly (and falsely) implied that the factory belonged entirely to him, including an extra story that was never built!
According to several surviving advertisements for J.H. Mesker & Co. the company’s extensive product line included wire and iron fencing, railings, cresting, signs, screens, tree boxes, chairs, settees, flower stands, baskets, guards, store fronts, verandas, balconies, stairs, shutters, gratings, elevators, carriages, and so on. Some of these, such as store fronts and roof crestings, overlapped with the architectural iron works by George L. Mesker & Co. It is unknown whether J.H. Mesker & Co. ever produced a catalog for its wares but an 1887 ad shows a cast iron roof cresting that also appeared in some of George’s catalogs. This brings into question the origin of some of these items, at least prior to 1898 when J.H. Mesker & Co. ceased to exist. Given the close family relationship, which clearly extended into their businesses, it isn’t unreasonable to expect the two brothers working together. In the end, whether produced by George or John Henry, the items were made by a Mesker.
John Henry Mesker’s story ended on a heartbreaking note. On May 21, 1898, upon return from a business trip, he took his own life, shooting himself twice with a pocket pistol. The first wound was above the right eye after which he shot himself fatally in the heart. John Henry’s body was found at the Mesker family homestead at 222 Goodsell Street by none other than his brother George L. Mesker. The suicide was a shock to all and the only probable cause provided was despondency—”the man had been in ill health for some time and often complained of his unfortunate lot” (Evansville Courier, May 22, 1898). Another obituary posited that J.H. Mesker was never as successful as his brothers, all of whom often provided him with assistance. “He would meet with unforeseen obstacles in his contracting business that would cause the loss of money” (Evansville Journal News, May 22, 1898). 1898 was a tragic year for the Mesker family—the youngest brother, Edward, had also passed away in January of the same year.
Unlike his brothers’ businesses, John Henry’s influence was local to Evansville, maybe regional at best. Thus far only a few surviving iron posts and fences by J.H. Mesker & Co. were identified in Evansville and New Harmony, but there are likely more. Less permanent than buildings, these intricate and beautiful objects are nonetheless important architectural elements that deserve retention and more than a mere footnote in the Mesker chronicles.
(Special thanks to Dennis Au for providing much of the background information for this post).