The post below appeared in the “Found in the Archives” series of the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s Records and Archives blog on May 20, 2015. After an early Mesker artifact was unearthed and featured in the Endangered Heritage display for National Preservation Month, it was spotted by historian and friend Dennis Au. Subsequently, I was asked by archivist Amber Gowen to write about this rare find. Thank you to Dennis and Amber for sharing the document and for the opportunity to contribute my thoughts about it (read the original post here).
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.