Source material

The Mesker companies were equal parts contributors and benefactors of the Industrial Revolution. The pendulum may have swung more towards the former, but it must nonetheless be acknowledged that the companies relied on raw materials and distribution systems established by others in order to fashion and sell their products. Without the raw materials—wood, several kinds of metal, and glass—they would have been unable to make their sought-after building fronts. In 1905 alone Mesker Brothers Iron Works brought in 45 train car loads, or 950 tons, of material from 15 various companies.

So what exactly did Mesker need to manufacture their ornamental building products? And where did these items come from? Thanks to the meticulously detailed accounting journal of Mesker Brothers Iron Works, called Ben’s Bible (after Bernard “Ben” Theodore Mesker), answers to these questions are possible, at least as they concern the St. Louis Mesker firm. We can only surmise whether the Evansville company operated by their brother George likewise had to rely on raw, or more technically correct, semi-processed, materials from similarly numerous sources, and the catalogs of George L. Mesker & Co. specifically touted that it was not dependent on other manufacturers for supplies.

Black (non-galvanized) and galvanized iron sheets, typically 30 inches wide and 96 to 120 inches long and in gauges ranging from 20 to 28, were an elemental product necessary for Mesker to stamp, bend, cut and form into various facade components. These were ordered from a number of Midwestern and Eastern states. Some were obtained directly in St. Louis from Granite Iron Rolling Mills, Bannantine Galvanized Iron Co., St. Louis Stamping Co., Geisel Manufacturing Co., E. Souther & Bro., Excelsior Manufacturing Co., and National Enameling and Stamping Co. Several Illinois companies based in Chicago also sold to Mesker, including Illinois Steel Co., Inland Steel Co., Scully Steel & Iron Co., and Nelson B. Williams. Some of the iron came from Indiana (John McVoy & Co., Muncie; Western Tin Plate & Sheet Co., Greencastle; Corning Steel Co., Hammond; and Atlanta Tin Plate & Sheet Mill Co., Atlanta) and Kentucky (Newport Rolling Mill Co., Newport; Ashland Sheet Mill Co., Ashland; and Moeschl-Edwards Corrugating Co., Covington). Suppliers from West Virginia were Whitaker Iron Co. and Wheeling Corrugating Co., both from Wheeling. A single New York-based company of Sidney Shepherd & Co. in Buffalo also shipped some iron to Mesker Brothers. However, the biggest suppliers were the steel mills of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Most of Pennsylvanian iron came from Pittsburgh (American Steel Co., Republic Iron Works, Moorehead-McLeane Co., Zug Iron & Steel Co., and Goff, Horner & Co.), but also from Apollo (Apollo Iron & Steel Co.), Sharon (Sharon Iron Co.), and Donora (Union Steel Co.). Ohio iron makers from whom Mesker Bros. bought are almost too numerous to mention (but we’ll give it a try): Cincinnati Rolling Mill Co., Cincinnati; American Rolling Mill Co., Middletown; Cincinnati Corrugating Co., Piqua; New Philadelphia Iron & Steel Co., New Philadelphia; Cleveland Steel Co., Cleveland; Aetna Standard Iron & Steel Company, Bridgeport; Reeves Iron Co., Canal Dover; Eagle Iron & Steel Co., Ironton; Cambridge Iron & Steel Co., Cambridge; Massillon Rolling Mill Co., Massillon; Portsmouth Steel Co., Portsmouth; and Youngstown Iron Sheet & Tube Co., Youngstown. Several were based in Canton—Berger Manufacturing Co., Stark Rolling Mill Co., and Canton Art Metal Co.—and Niles—Ohio Galvanizing & Manufacturing Co., Falcon Iron & Nail Co., Empire Iron & Steel Co., and New Process Galvanizing Co.

Detailed accounting information regarding galvanized iron purchased for stock, for years 1900 to 1902. The information includes dates, supplier names, sizes, weight, and cost. From Ben’s Bible, page 1052. Image courtesy of David Mesker (original at the National Building Arts Center, Sauget, Illinois).

Sheet zinc, softer than iron and therefore used for deeper embossing, was ordered from Gerock Bros. Manufacturing Co., St. Louis, MO; Matthiessen & Hegeler Zinc Co., LaSalle, IL; and Illinois Zinc Co., Peru, IL. An example of a zinc stamping by Mesker Brothers Iron Works is below.

An example of a popular Mesker Bros. motif, executed in stamped zinc. This one is from the Stewardson Opera Hall in Stewardson, IL.

Sills and columns for storefronts were made of heavy plate steel shipped largely from Pennsylvania (Central Iron & Steel Co., Harrisburg; Lukens Steel Co., Coatesville; Coatesville Rolling Mill Co., Coatesville; Worth Bros. Co., Coatesville; American Iron & Steel Co., Lebanon; Cambria Steel Co., Philadelphia; Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., Pittsburgh; Carnegie Steel Co., Pittsburgh; Schoenberger Steel Co., Pittsburgh) and Ohio (Portsmouth Steel Co., Portsmouth; La Belle Steel Works, Steubenville; Cleveland Rolling Mill Co., Cleveland; Cleveland Steel Co., Cleveland). Other plate steel manufacturers that supplied to Mesker included Illinois Steel Co., Chicago, IL; Riverside Iron Works, Wheeling, WV; Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railway Co., Birmingham, AL; and A. Mitchell Tractor Co., Seattle, WA. The material was also obtained locally in St. Louis from C. Hagar Iron Co., Beck & Corbet, Ewald Iron Co., and Western Iron & Supply Co.

Millwork came mostly, and not surprisingly, from Michigan. Much of it from Saginaw (Linton Manufacturing Co., D. Harden Co., Thos. Jackson & Co., W. B. Mershon & Co., and Wm. Polson & Co.), Muskgeon (Langeland Manufacturing Co., McGraft Lumber Co.), and Alma (Tinker, Lancashire & Co.). However, Mesker also purchased from Farley & Loetscher Manufacturing Co. in Dubuque, IA, and from Joseph Hafner Manufacturing Co. in St. Louis, MO.

Glass suppliers were likewise diverse. Rough skylight glass was obtained locally in St. Louis from the Mississippi Glass Co., Louisiana Purchase Exposition Co., and the A. Drew Glass Co. Illinois suppliers included the Streator Cathedral Glass Co. of Streator, and Fox & Fox and James H. Rice Co., both from Chicago. Two Pennsylvania outfits also shipped to Mesker—Gray & Son Glass Co. in Falls Creek, and Brownsville Window Glass Manufacturing Co. in Brownsville.

Double-strength (“B” quality) glass was purchased from W. Allison Glass Co., Centralia, IL; Irving W. Rice & Co., New York, NY; Union Glass Co., Somerville, MA; Camp Glass Co., Huntington, WV; Diamond Glass Co., Royersford, PA; Eldred Glass Co., Eldred, PA; William McCully & Co., Pittsburgh, PA; and Converse Glass Co., Converse, IN.

Even items such as bracket bolts had to be obtained from somewhere, and they came from a variety of places including the St. Louis Screw Co., St. Louis, MO; American Screw Co., Providence, RI; Steele & Johnson, Waterbury, CT; Mount Carmel Bolt Co., Mt. Carmel, CT; Cobb & Drew, Rock Falls, IL; Atlas Bolt & Screw Co., Cleveland, OH; and Reed & Prince Manufacturing Co., Worcester, MA.

If you’ve read to this point, you may be wondering why it was important to list all of those companies above? There are several reasons. First, to create the proper context for the output of the Mesker companies. As stated previously, they did not operate in a vacuum and their success was dependent on many others; hence, we should give credit where it’s due and acknowledge these many contributors by name. Secondly, to break the notion of a Mesker facade as being an exclusively St. Louis or Evansville product. It’s true that the facades took their final shape in Mesker factories located in those two cities, but since the raw materials came from all over the United States, Mesker building products are even more quintessentially American due, quite literally, to their composition. Depending on the building facade, it could have consisted of as diverse resources as Ohioan iron, Illinoisan zinc, Pennsylvanian steel, Michiganite lumber, and West Virginian glass—all fashioned and assembled in St. Louis, Missouri, or Evansville, Indiana. I’m not sure if a building’s DNA can get any more American than that.

The extensive list of manufacturers listed above and the ensuing material journey from various locales to the Midwest and then out to Main Streets throughout the country—as demonstrated in a real example below—also helps to balance the scales between the myth of small town America being built with mostly local materials and the opposite notion that it was largely mass-produced by the likes of Meskers and their ilk. (For more information check out an excellent blog, The Myths of Main Street by Dr. Kirin J. Makker; this post is especially relevant here.)  The truth is somewhere in the middle and the relationship between the local (Main Street) and the mass-produced (Mesker), symbiotic. Main Street may not have been entirely hand-made or built of finished local materials, but neither did a building originate in a distant factory, or at least not in the factory that we think of. A building’s genesis may in fact have begun locally, with raw materials from a nearby steel mill or lumber yard, which took a long journey to St. Louis or Evansville and—after a significant make over—eventually made it back, to grace a local Main Street edifice. Too romantic a notion? Almost certainly. But in the zeal to give Meskers their well-deserved credit we should not dismiss the local contributions towards creating the Main Street archetype.

Stewardson Opera Hall (1893), Stewardson, IL. The galvanized sheet-metal facade was manufactured by Mesker Brothers Iron Works using iron sheets produced by at least two suppliers. Photo from 2006, prior to dismantling of the facade and subsequent re-installation in Arcola, IL.
Back of a galvanized sheet-metal panel removed during the 2006 dismantling of the Stewardson Opera Hall. The markings are of Republic Iron Works in Pittsburgh, PA.
Another sheet-metal piece from the Stewardson Opera Hall bears the “Diamond Juniata” trademark of the St. Louis Stamping Co. in St. Louis, MO.
Another “Juniata” marking, possibly by the St. Louis Stamping Co., indicating that the galvanized iron sheet was manufactured for Mesker Brothers Iron Works.

2 thoughts on “Source material

  1. That was a long list of company names, but it was also fascinating to see the depth and breadth of the involvement in these buildings. I appreciate your crediting those companies and their role in Meskers. I also find it interesting about what is underneath or behind building parts. I learned about looking at the back of a building from Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and have always found the company stamps, and in some cases, hand signatures, fascinating on early furniture.

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