MESKER. That name was one of the hot “in” words in the 1880’s especially in Mt. Carroll where the commercial district was undergoing a transformation.
Mesker might have been heard being discussed by the group of guys gathered at the blacksmith shop or amongst the young ladies sitting around the tiny tables at the soda fountain. They might also have talked about Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s new book or wondered about the tent story building just up in Chicago, the world’s first “skyscraper.” But Mesker captured the thoughts of many in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s.
Mesker was an exciting invention that could make an average looking building of brick or wood or merely lath, appear as if it were a “metropolitan” facade of stone or cement with its twists and curlicues of several Classical Revival architectural styles but which were metal and could be applied with only a nail, a screw or the clip already in place. It gave small towns a “citified” look, it was claimed.
There were two Mesker companies, “Mesker Bros. Iron Works” in St. Louis, Missouri and “George Mesker and Co.” in Evansville, Indiana.
It was Illinois’ close proximity to both sites that there were so many Mesker buildings throughout Southern and Central parts of the state. There weren’t as many in northern parts of the Illinois but there were examples in nearly every other community and Mt. Carroll would have one of the state’s highest percentage per buildings on their main streets.
It’s been pointed out that Mesker frontage panels weren’t the most expensive of such systems—probably of medium cost, but they have held up well over the decades with proper maintenance—paint and regular treatment against rust. They are impressive. More expensive panels were usually found in large cities where the budget was more full and selective. Mesker was affordable to the small town builder who wanted a modern look to show the public it was with the trends.
While the Mesker decorated building could have any sort of material behind it, it also could have a variety of architectural styles or a mixture thereof. They were lumped together into Classical Revival or, later called “Victorian.”
There was everything from Roman rope molding, Queen Anne, or Eastlake or Greek Revival.
Panels were made of galvanized steel and cast iron, pressed at the factory with multiple designs of your choice. Builders ordered from a catalog, a page of which is seen here, reduced in size ... Columns, panels, cornices, brackets—what-have-you! They could be made to fit any length or width desired.
Because by the 1880’s most small towns in Illinois were accessible by the railroad, the “store fronts” could be delivered to the buyer or nearby. When arriving at their destination, they would be wagon-hauled to the site and applied by unskilled labor, another advantage.
What might appear as though a facade was cement/concrete is really a thin veneer of metal. They were often painted in grays or tans to resemble cement! Today they are painted more colorfully with contrasting trims and accents. They have become a wonderful aesthetic lure because of their attractiveness.
As Mt. Carroll’s main street was undergoing transformation in the 1860’s and ‘70’s, the Bitner Block was experiencing its first indication of its future demise when in the excavation of the lot next west, the Block’s west wall was becoming shaky.
The Bitner Block was owned in 1879 by Henry Bitner, a prosperous local farmer who specialized in raising hogs. Many farmers and other capitalists bought or built structures as part of their town’s urban development, taking a hand in town affairs. The Block had apparently served as the “Auction Dry Goods,” a common business then. They may have sold seconds, over runs or merchandise seized from debtors stock. But, Please, Don’t Quote Me! Lanark had one in its early years, too.
The three story Block was slowly crumbling but Bitner did not remove it in its entire, merely part of its parapet saying, “Now there is no possibility of stray bricks dropping on the heads of unwary pedestrians.”
The weak and shaky west wall held its own until 1882 when the building was sold to J.F. Allison and it remained an Auction store. Allison, from Elkhorn Grove, was county treasurer serving from 1873 to 1881. He was a man of strong opinion who got things done. For instance, he lived on the north side of the canyon cut by the Waukarusa Creek where it was about a half mile walk or by horse to the commercial district or the courthouse. The idea came to Allison to contrive a suspension bridge across the chasm so with a partner, a Mr. Fuller, they set about having a span built ... About 250 feet in length by four feet across, laid with wood planks. No more than twenty people were allowed on the bridge at one time, no swinging or running, etc. Two dollar fine for a number of infractions each, and there were several. The cost of the bridge was $3,600.
Allison retired from the county position in 1881 and perhaps became bored so purchased the Bitner Block, it now becoming known as the Allison Block which persisted until 1888 when it was demolished to make way for a modern business block.
It was designed specifically to receive the Mesker system with large floor to ceiling windows, glass doors and many of the other elements that indicated it was a Mesker.
It was the talk of the town. The large windows brought light into the store so merchandise could better be seen and also seen from the outside looking in, a negative with the old store fronts with smaller, small paned windows, low ceilings and so forth.
By September of 1888 the Allison Block was completed with its first tenant being J.H. Bushey whose first advertisement is seen here. Bushey had relocated his clothing store from Market and Carroll streets to this prime location “uptown” which was described as the “largest and handsomest store building in the county,” to quote. Bushey called the place the “White Store,” not only for its exterior color but because the store was filled with light from its large windows, a point of pride. The Bushey family lived in an apartment upstairs.
Joe Petersen came to Mt. Carroll in 1896 and in the late ‘90’s became the second tenant of the Allison Block. (It became the Richter Block at one time, too.) The picture with this carries Petersen’s name on its east wall (Why the horseless wagon is standing mid-street is a question never to be answered!!!) Petersen Clothier was at the site for about ten years when a “franchise,” a new thing to the small town came aboard the community progressive character. The story will continue NEXT WEEK.
Material for this article was loaned by Randy Stadle, and from information found in the Mirror-Democrat, Bob Watson, editor; May of 1986. A long, informative article prepared by students of the University of Illinois School of Architecture assembled the material concerning Mt. Carroll’s commercial district. We are grateful to all for their study made available to the public.