Every legacy has its origins and the four Mesker brothers and their respective companies owe their genesis to a certain John Bernard Mesker (1823–1899).
John Bernard Mesker was born in Germany on February 22, 1823, and came to America in 1835. Settling in Cincinnati, John trained as a “tinner,” a craftsman who worked with tinplate, or small sheets of iron dipped in molten tin. He worked primarily for stove and tinware businesses until he struck out on his own in 1844, when he began making trips up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, providing services from a flatboat of his own construction. He also maintained a tin shop in Cincinnati, on the west side of Main Street, between 12th and 13th Streets. Three years later in 1847, he co-founded Mesker and Busse, a stove manufacturer but in 1850 decided to move to Evansville, Indiana, having formed a good impression of the town during a visit to his brother and local grocer, Henry Mesker. In Evansville, John opened a store where he produced stoves, copper, tin, sheet-iron ware, and eventually began galvanizing iron for buildings, later being credited for introducing iron cornices to the city. Around 1870, he moved his business to the corner of Market Street and Court Street, and in 1874 changed its name to J.B. Mesker & Son. The company, which flourished into the 1890s, provided a fertile training ground for John’s sons, all of whom attended private and business schools to help with the family trade.
The eldest Mesker didn’t just teach his sons the ironworking trade but instilled in them the entrepreneurial spirit and relentless work ethic. Throughout his adulthood he was engaged in numerous business ventures. In the mid-1850s, he opened the Eagle Foundry, in partnership with F.W. Brinkmeyer and John H. Roelker. While he later divested his interests in the company, it is likely that he collaborated with his former partners on building jobs, as evidenced in the facade of 510-512 South Main Street in New Harmony, Indiana, with cast iron columns by the Eagle Foundry and galvanized iron work by J.B. Mesker. Yet another business began in 1876 when John and his oldest son, Bernard, formed a partnership with J.B. Buehner, a chair manufacturer, under the name Buehner, Mesker & Company, with Bernard in charge of the Mesker interests in the venture.
While his sons went on to become giants of the industry largely due to their own efforts, it is evident that J.B. Mesker was instrumental in their early success. In 1879, Bernard decided to leave Evansville to strike it rich in silver in Leadville, Colorado. He sold his interest in the chair company and headed west, stopping in St. Louis to visit his brother, Frank, who was working as a bookkeeper and estimator for Huzzell and Cozzens, a sheet-metal firm. Documents point to John B. Mesker also selling his interest in Buehner, Mesker & Co. at the same time, in favor of Bernard. The capital Bernard gained, which was in excess of $5,000, was believed to be the starter capital for Mesker & Brother (later to be known as Mesker Brothers). Additionally, in order to assist the fledgling business of his sons, J.B. Mesker appears to have opened a small St. Louis branch office, which Bernard and Frank operated during 1881-82, at the same location as Mesker & Brother at 1119 Olive Street. It’s unclear whether John kept the branch open once his sons moved to a new location on 6th Street, but soon they would no longer need his assistance, propelling themselves into leaders of architectural sheet-metal work in America.
As Bernard and Frank were establishing a niche for their business in St. Louis, their brother George continued to work for John in Evansville as a bookkeeper and ironworker at J.B. Mesker and 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). It was during this phase of George’s increased involvement that the company received several important commissions. Among these was a contract for the iron, zinc, and tin work for the Cloud State Bank in McLeansboro, Illinois. Designed by the architecture firm of Reid & Reid of Evansville, the building was completed in 1882. It features exuberant architectural motifs, including several cornices and a mansard roof covered with tin. The building’s crowning element is a “bull’s eye” tower covered with zinc shingles and topped with wrought iron, also executed by J.B. Mesker & Son. In 1884 adjacent to the bank, the Cloud family had Reid & Reid design an elaborate residence, which also features sheet-metal cornices and decorative ironwork, likely made by J.B. Mesker & Son. In later years, George L. Mesker & Co. provided cast iron columns and galvanized iron cornices for most of the commercial buildings in town.
Despite the success of his father’s business, George had ambitions of his own. By 1884 he established his own company, George L. Mesker & Co., 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. Leaving the architectural sheet-metal and iron work to George, J.B. and yet another son, Edward Mesker (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. Despite these ventures being independent, J.B. Mesker’s ironworks at the corner of Market and Court Streets was the epicenter of family business activity as both of his sons’ businesses operated at this same location, at least until George opened his own place in 1885 at the intersection of N.W. First Street and Ingle Street, taking over a former foundry building of J.B. Mesker & Son on that site that was either sold or gifted to him by his father. It’s very likely that the father assisted his sons on their early projects before they fully mastered their craft and established solid reputations of their own. Their family relationships unfettered by business, all Meskers continued to reside together at 222 Goodsell, near their manufacturing facilities in the industrial sector of Evansville.
In 1895, after five decades of work, J.B. Mesker retired and sold his business to an employee, Henry S. Schminke. The business was renamed to H. Schminke & Co. but it continued in its original location until 1916 when the entire block was razed for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum. Meanwhile, John Bernard Mesker’s retirement didn’t last too long; he died on December 21, 1899 due to kidney trouble.
Information about facades or cornices manufactured by J.B. Mesker & Son is scant. Even scarcer are known surviving buildings, although more could exist and have not yet been identified. However, unlike the companies of his sons, J.B. Mesker operated primarily in proximity to Evansville, so the potential pool of buildings is much smaller. Aside from the Cloud State Bank, there are just two more surviving buildings with ironwork credited to J.B. Mesker. Four others, including the remarkable cornice of the J.B. Mesker & Son building, have been confirmed through historic sources and photographs but have been demolished long ago. A few more historic references, such as architect Oscar Ruffini’s recollections about a three-story front supplied by J.B. Mesker circa 1880-81, were not possible to be linked to specific buildings as of yet.
While his own surviving work may be insignificant, John B. Mesker’s legacy extends beyond the stoves he made or the iron cornices he erected. Without his upbringing of the Mesker brothers in the family trade as well his strategic support during their companies’ formative years, they likely would not have succeeded. There would be no Mesker Brothers Iron Works or George L. Mesker & Co., nor thousands of sheet-metal fronts gracing America’s Main Streets. His sons may have operated their own independent iron works businesses, but the tightly knit family and business ties originated and nurtured by John suggest that the significance of brothers Mesker should be evaluated and understood as part of a larger family tradition. The brothers certainly knew how to tap into this heritage, and often did so discreetly and without diminishing their own accomplishments. Case in point are the catalog covers of Mesker Brothers Iron Works that boast an establishment date of 1846, and which can only refer to the Cincinnati tin ware days of one John Bernard Mesker.