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John A. Messer, Galax Industrialist

Judy Alley

This section contains three articles, the first two are obituaries of Mr. And Mrs. Messer. Parenthetical notes in these obituaries are from Judy Alley. The third is a 1956 article on Mr. Messer’s business concerns in Galax.

obit for John A. Messer, Sr.,
Galax Gazette
January 1961


John A. Messer, Sr, 75, long-time Galax industrialist and greatly beloved citizen passed away in a local hospital at 11:55 a.m. Tuesday, January 24, 1961. He had suffered a severe heart attack less than an hour earlier in the Galax Mirror Co. building on East Grayson Street. He had been in declining health for several months.

Mr. Messer suffered what seemed to be a fainting spell, and plant and office personnel who happened to be near him managed to into his private office and quickly summoned an ambulance in which he was rushed to the hospital.

He is survived by his wife Mrs Augusta G. (Germain) Messer; one son, John A. Messer Jr, Galax; two daughters Mrs. B. M. (Beatrice Mercedes) Nunn, Galax and Mrs John M (Gertrude Louise) Cheek Jr. Mt Airy NC and a number of grandchildren. (10). (son Kenneth Gilbert Messer died in 1956, buried Felts Cemetery Galax)

Mr Messer was born in New York City August 10, 1885. (Born in Russia and immigrated to the US in 1895). He came to Galax in 1927 and organized the Galax Mirror Company on borrowed capital, plus a strong faith in the future of Galax as an industrial center. From that humble beginning the venture has grown into the present Messer Industries which in little more than twenty-five years have paid to employees in excess of $20,000,000.00 in salaries and wages with gross sales of manufactured products in the period amounting to some $88,000,000.

A number of furniture plants have been operated here and in Mount Airy NC as units of Messer Industries.

Mr. and Mrs Messer celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1957. (correct date of marriage 3 Jul 1909, Guilford Co NC)

Mr Messer has long been a member of the First Methodist Church and a member of the church’s Board of Stewards and Board of Trustees.

He was a member of Galax Lodge No. 68, A. F. & A and Kazim Temple of Shrine, Roanoke, and Galax Lodge 733, Loyal Order of Moose.

A staunch Republican, Mr Messer was an alternate delegate from the fifth congressional district of Virginia and was in attendance at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1956.

He was engaged in furniture manufacturing in Bassett between 1923 and 1927 after which he came to Galax. Earlier he had served as a field representative for Woodman of the World insurance service.

Funeral services were held at the First Methodist Church today (Thursday) at 3:30 PM with Dr Mark M Moore, pastor of the church and Dr W. Bunts, a former pastor (retired) and long time friend of Mr Messer conducted the services.

The body was removed from Vaughan-Guynn Funeral Home to the residence east of the city on Hillsville Highway at 4:30 PM Wednesday. It was placed in the church an hour before the services.

Interment was in Felts Cemetery.

Pallbearers were Wiley Gentry, Robert L Hudson, Sam C Hampton, Paul Wilson, Everette H Mayes, Dean Sutherland, W. James Sessoms, Duane E Ward, Gene C Nuckolls, M. Dean Gordon, William C. James, Buford B Crockett, Charles D. Moore, Alton Jones, R. Mabe, T. W. Williams. R. Brown, and John Wingate.

All plants of Messer Industries were closed Wednesday and today.

subject: obit for Mrs. John A. Messer, Sr
source: Galax Gazette
date 10 Mar 1977

Headline: Mrs. J. A. Messer

Mrs Augusta G. (Germain) Messer, 86, of East Stuart Dr, Galax, widow of John A. Messer Sr, died at her home Thursday night March 10, 1977.

Mrs. Messer’s husband was for many years a well known Galax citizen and industrialist.

Born in New Jersey (Jersey City) July 4, 1890, Mrs Messer was the daughter of August Germain and Marie Arnold Germain.

She is survived by two daughters Mrs. Beatrice Nunn, Galax and Mrs. John M. Cheek, Mt. Airy NC; one son John A Messer Jr Greenville, SC; 10 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. (note: son Kenneth Gilbert Messer died in July 1956)

Services were conducted at the First Methodist Church Saturday, March 12, at 2 p.m. by the Rev. Nelson C. Woody, pastor of the church and Dr. J. A. Hardin, associate pastor.

Interment followed in Felts Memorial Cemetery. (Galax). The body rested at Vaughan – Guynn Funeral Home until removed to the church at the time for the services.

Subject: John A. Messer Sr
source: Galax Gazette
date: 1st printed 9 Aug 1956 (during Galax’s Golden Jubilee Celebration) printed again as part of his obituary (Jan 1961)

Headlines: $1200 and Faith in the Future were Foundations for Messer Industries in Galax

Note: The following story was printed in the Thursday August 9, 1956 issue of the Galax Gazette – the day before the late J. A. Messer Sr observed his 71st birthday)

Faith in the future of Galax as an industrial center plus $1200 of “Bassett Money in his pockets” were the foundations on which J. A. Messer, Sr., built today’s bustling Messer Industries.

Keystone of the group is the Galax Mirror Co which Mr Messer organized here in 1927 on borrowed capital plus that “$1200 in “Bassett money” and the confidence that Galax would grow.

Mr Messer chuckles when he mentions the initial “capital” he brought with him to Galax 29 years ago, and explains:

“When I went to work in Bassett’s mirror plant I bought some stock in the company. After four years when I left I sold my stock to the bank and made $1200 profit on it…that was my capital when I came to Galax. “

The friendship between Mr. Messer and the Bassett family has endured these 22 odd years, despite the fact both are producing competing products.

It was these friends in the furniture manufacturing center near Martinsville who persuaded Mr Messer to return to his first love at a time when he was a successful insurance salesman.

When he assumed the management of the Bassett Mirror plant in 1923, he was field representative for the Woodmen of the World Insurance Fraternity with headquarters in Mt Airy NC. Acquaintances at the mirror plant in Mt Airy, knowing of his background in the glass business, encouraged him to contact Bassett officials, who were looking for an experienced man for their new mirror plant.

His journey to Bassett’s resulted in his taking on the task of putting the Bassett Mirror plant into efficient production. At the same time, he acquired the stock he was later to sell for the profit that enabled him to move to Galax and strike out on his own.

Mr. Messer is quick to credit three groups of people in his life with his success in the manufacturing business:

  1. “Those who have opposed me…who have placed obstacles in front of me, giving me a challenge…”
  2. “…My friends and loved ones who have given me encouragement
  3. “… and the most loyal group of workers a man could possibly have.”

“Those are the ones responsible .. they are the ones due all the credit”, he said.

But his business associates and acquaintances have another reason to add which they say has meant as much or more than anything else in his climb to the position he holds today…that of a shrewd, discerning business mind and the ability to select key personnel for the job that has to be done. That and the willingness, sometimes, eagerness, to face up to and overcome almost any problem.

This trait of not letting any challenge go by without attempting to meet it showed up early in the life of the head of Messer Industries; As a mere stripling of a 9 year old lad on the streets one day he saw a sign that read: “Boy wanted, 15 years or older.”

Here was a challenge…What could a 15 year old boy do that he couldn’t do? Where upon he took the sign, climbed a flight of stairs, and asked for the manager of the Shaffer Brothers Glass Co.

This, of course, was in the 1890s before child labor laws came into vogue.

The glass company manager took one look at the nine year old and gruffly sought to dismiss him, by pointing to the sign and saying “can’t you read? It says 15 year old.”

“What kind of work is it that a 15 year old can do that I can’t do,” was the brassy reply and he got the job at $2.50 a week.

For four and a half years, or until he was almost 14, he filled the position designed for the 15 year old, and, being ambitious, he quit to take a job at another glass plant for the magnificent sum of $4.50 a week.

Sixteen years old and an experienced glass worker as the twentieth century began its eventful and historical unfolding, he joined the force of a glass plant that was moving, bag, and baggage to High Point NC. Persuading him to make this move to the south was the promise of $12.50 a week.

Others who came south with the Ecker Glass Co were the parents (August and Marie Germain, French immigrants) of a young girl who soon attracted the attention of the young glass worker and became Mrs. J. A. Messer in 1907. (correction: wedding date 3 Jul 1909) They are looking forward to celebrating their Golden Anniversary next year.

During the next few years, young Messer applied himself to his work, keeping his eyes and ears open, learning the many intricate details of the mirror making business.

Increasing along with his experience was his weekly paycheck, but $27.00 a week in the inflated economy that followed W.W.I was not enough for a wife and four children so Mr. Messer began writing insurance during off hours to supplement the family income.

Feeling that his experiences and knowledge of the mirror business warranted more money, in 1920 he accosted his employer for a raise. Here again another “challenge” was tossed his way. His boss refused a substantial pay boost and instead offered only a 50 cents a week increase. “Had he given me a $3 a week more I might have been still there today.” Mr Messer commented. Instead, the take it or leave it offer of a measly 50 cents a week increase caused him to throw up his lifelong work and face the challenge of supporting his family by working full-time as an insurance agent.

In a short while his pay amounted to $250 a month – nearly two and a half times what he had made at the glass plant. To be nearer the center of his territory he moved his family to Mt. Airy from which point he worked the counties of Surry, Wilkes and Iredell.

The call of the mirror business….(missing line)….. through and he maintained his friendship with workers at the mirror plant in Mt. Airy. It was these friends who told him of the opportunity in Bassett and encouraged him to return to the mirror-making business.

So, in 1923, he returned to his first love and, after four years at the plant in Bassett, he turned to the growing furniture-making center of Galax as a likely place in which to try his hand at a mirror plant of his own.

“We arrived here in a T-Model Ford…and the first operations of the Galax Mirror Co. was in the old warehouse shed behind the Webb Furniture Company,” he said.

During the economic depression that followed the collapse of ‘ 29 Mr Messer acquired the first of the several factories that comprise the Messer group today – Webb Furniture Company.

With a staunch faith in the future, plus the stubborn trait of never running from a challenging situation, he added the Mt. Airy Mirror Company, and the plant that is now known as the Galax Furniture Co to his holdings. This is a time when the nation’s economy was at a low ebb.

The fifth factory – The Carroll Furniture Co. (now merged with Webb Furniture and known as Webb#2) was built at the close of W.W.II. Here again was evidence of his faith in the future as he expanded his facilities while others were fearful of a slump following the close of the global war.

Always one to delegate authority to his key men, during recent years Mr Messer has come to learn more and more on his son J. A. Messer Jr and his many loyal employees.

That the Galax Mirror Co, has meant much to the economy of this area is obvious when one considers that during the past 25 years employees have been paid in excess of $20,000,000 in salaries and wages and the gross sales of mirrors have amounted to some $88,996,000. In all, the Galax plants of Messer Industries provide employment for some 1000 persons in this area.

The Incentive Plan of a great reward for increased more efficient production has been a key fact in the growth of the Messer Industries.

Another facet of the Messer story is that of his generosity. A truly worthy cause can count on his support – financial and otherwise – but promoters of crackpot schemes are brusquely dismissed. And, with sincere modesty, his contributions are made with as little fanfare as possible. In fact, solicitors for charitable funds and other causes are given stern admonition to “keep it to yourself.”

Even in this, however, Mr Messer’s philosophy of putting forth a little extra effort to overcome a challenge exerts itself, for, usually his contributions is made a promise of an even greater one, provided a certain goal is reached.

Just as this week is an important one to Galax, this week also will see Mr Messer marking another mile stone – his 71st birthday (August 10th)

And how shall he observe this milestone?” “By working as usual.”

And he should have added – “by getting ready to fly to California next week to attend the Republican National Convention.” A staunch Republican, Mr Messer is an alternate delegate from the fifth district of Virginia.

Note: A member of the Messer family provides the following corrections-additions to information above: Mr. Messer was born in Russia and immigrated to the USA during the mid 1890s. He was the son of Frank and Ida Messer. His Father arrived in 1893 and his mother and siblings arrived in 1897. Frank, Ida and another son David were interred in the Montefiori Cemetery, Springfield Gardens, NY. John and Augusta’s wedding certificate indicates the year was 1909, not 1907.