John A. Messer Sr
10 August 1885 – 24 January 1961
An article published during the Golden Jubilee celebration in 1956 stated that John Messer was the Horatio Alger of Galax. He had arrived in town in December 1927 with a gleam in his eye and a shine on his pants. Within 25 years he parlayed his meager assets into Messer Industries which consisted of three furniture factories and two mirror companies. There were numerous articles written about John A. Messer Sr. and almost every one contained errors and unsupported stories. The following information has been proven by court documents, deeds, census reports, and etc.
The SS Furst Bismarck, was an ocean liner built for the Hamburg America line. It set sail from the port of Hamburg Germany on 7 July 1897 under the command of Captain Adolph Albers. The ship’s manifest page listed Chaine (Ida) Mesoritzky and her children 11 year old Malke (Mollie), 9 year old Itzig (John) and 5 year old Jossel (Joseph). The young family had left their home in a village near Kiev Russia, and were to be met by husband/father Efraim (Frank) Messer, who had arrived in 1893. It was common for the father or an older brother to emigrate first in order to obtain lodging and save money to pay for the passage of his family. When the Messer family arrived they were part of over 5 million immigrants who came to the United States from Europe within a ten year period. Ellis Island/the port of New York was known as the “Golden Door” for those seeking a better life in this country.
The New York birth certificates for their sons David, Michael and Jacob, the 1900, 1910, and 1920 federal census, and the 1905 and 1915 special State of New York census indicated that Frank and Ida were Russian born and first lived in Manhattan, but as their income increased they moved their family to Brooklyn. John was 19 years old and still living with his family in 1905. (not in a home for newspaper boys as previously reported.)
The facts that he was 19 years old on the 1905 New York census and 23 years old when he married in 1909 refute earlier articles that indicated he was a very young boy from Germanywhen he moved to High Point. Another incorrect statement written about John Messer was that he worked in North Wilkesboro for the Bienenfield Glass Company. A very close “paper trail” time line indicated that John Messer resided in High Point from 1907 until he moved to Mt Airy. The proof included land purchases, a marriage license, census reports, city directories, John’s draft registration card of 1917, and the birth records of his 4 children which all took place in High Point between 1907 and 1920. (error: “Foresight, Founders, and Fortitude” pages 117-118)
On 19 August 1907 John Messer purchased 3 lots from the Johnson Land Company in High Point. At that time he worked at the Ferd Ecker Glass Company. Mr. Ecker and his foreman August Germain had emigrated from France in the 1880s.The two men were both from the Alsace Lorraine area but it is not known if they knew each other before New York City. August and Marie Germain’s daughter Augusta met John Messer when she delivered a packet to her father at work. The young couple was married in High Point on 3 July 1909, the day before Augusta’s 19th birthday. John Messer recorded on the marriage license that his parents were Frank and Ida Messer of Brooklyn New York. When the 1910 Federal census was recorded on the 22nd and 23rd of April John and Augusta were boarding with a family on Green Street. The information John Messer furnished for the census that year clearly indicated that he was born in Russia to Russian born parents.
John and Augusta Messer built their first home at 318 Louise Avenue, a one story framed house not far from her parents. This address was found in the city directories as well as on John Messer’s draft registration card. While in High Point John Messer began to purchase land, a practice that he continued when he moved to Galax.
John and Augusta’s oldest daughter Beatrice Mercedes was born on 8 June 1910. She was joined by Gertrude Louise on 2 November 1913, Kenneth Gilbert on 27 December 1916 and John Alvin on 8 August 1918. John Messer (Sr.) was recorded as “John” or “John I.” in all North Carolina documents found before the birth of their last son. The 1918 birth certificate was the first time John was listed as John Alvin Messer (Sr.).
Like his father in law August Germain, John was a foreman for the Ferd Ecker Glass Company. In the late 1910s John asked for a raise in salary because of the financial needs of his growing family. When it was denied John left the Ecker Mirror Company and went to work as a salesman for the Woodmen of the World Insurance Company. Apparently, the family moved to Mt. Airy during early 1920s because Beatrice was presented with a perfect attendance certificate from the Mt. Airy Elementary School in the early 1920s.
When Bassett Furniture Company decided to open their own mirror factory they remembered John Messer and his excellent reputation as a “mirror man.” John was easily persuaded to move to Bassett Virginia and become superintendent of the new factory. In 1927 John Messer was hired by T. G. Vaughan who had decided to open a mirror factory in Galax. John moved his wife and four children to town in December. The family resided in the northern part of town until their brick house on the corner of Adams and Oldtown Streets was completed. It is interesting to note that this home is the only John and Augusta Messer home still standing in Galax.
Seven men gathered in the home of B. C. Vaughan on 30 October 1927 for the purpose of organizing the Galax Mirror Company. Besides Mr. Vaughan they included T. G. Vaughan, J. V. Webb, C. V. Stanley, J. A. Messer, J. W. Stanley Jr and Reves Gardner. All of the men, except for J. W. Stanley and Reves Gardner each pledged $5000.00 for stock in the new company. The minutes of the first board meeting recorded that Messer was elected President and Manager, B. C. Vaughan was elected Secretary, Mr. Webb was Treasurer, T. G. Vaughan was Vice President and C. V. Stanley was 2nd Vice President. The end of the year financial statement of 15 December 1928 indicated the net gain for the year was $3,808.23,
The Galax Mirror Company began in a small building behind Webb Furniture Company. Within a few years John Messer took over total ownership and moved it to the corner of Oldtown and Carroll Streets. The new location had originally been an old buggy factory. Under his leadership the mirror company soon expanded with its products marketed all over the United States. It was written that the mirror company silvered more mirrors than any other plant in the country before it was sold in the late 1960s. He acquired control of Webb furniture Company around 1932 and Galax Furniture Company in 1943. In 1960 Galax Furniture Company was merged with Webb Furniture Company and became known as Webb Furniture Industries. It was considered one of the major industries of the thriving manufacturing center of Galax. It also provided the town with one of its largest payrolls in addition to the purchase of several million feet of local lumber. Messer Industries also included Carroll Furniture Company in Galax and Mt. Airy Mirror Company in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.
While John focused on establishing Messer Industries, Augusta was busy designing Cherry Hill, a beautiful home on the outskirts of town. The land was purchased on 26 October 1934 from O. C. Jones. It had originally been part of the 1000 acre tract purchased by Rev. Jacob Bishop in the early 1850s. An article in the Galax Gazette described the 9000 square foot, 3 story house as “the beautiful country home of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Messer, Sr. is located on a long, gentle slope overlooking the J. E. B. Stuart Highway two miles east of Galax. This estate consists of 70 acres of rolling blue grass lawns and meadows, and is one of the notable country places of Southwest Virginia. Mr. Messer is a well known mirror, furniture and upholstering manufacturer.”
The family moved to Cherry Hill in 1936. An article in the August 27th Gazette reported that Mr. and Mrs John A. Messer Sr. had issued invitations for a large party to be given at their home. The article described the home as “the handsome brick residence built atop a large gently sloping hill and commands a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside, distant mountains and the Gladeville Valley, looking west toward the Galax County Club.” Note: this beautiful estate was destroyed in 1998 to make room for the construction of the Wal-Mart Shopping Center.
During the 1930s, the Galax Gazette featured an anonymously written column “Wings over Galax.” The 16 November 1936 column mentioned the following: “My, My, another week has passed and we’ve gone safely through another Friday the 13th. I was scared that something might happen Friday…but the only thing that did happen was a fire scare over at John Messer’s fine new home East of the village. It was a bigger scare here in town, I guess, than it was over at the Messer home, what with that fire siren doing its best to stir people’s imaginations…to making them think that it must be a big fire. …and the engines racing to the scene. Somebody, we haven’t definitely heard who it was, although we think we know, made an error and drove one of the trucks to John’s old home on West Oldtown Street. That scared a lot of people who thought the fire was here in town…and possibly in their own neighborhood…. and it gave a little more excitement on Main Street as the truck was driven up the main stem to get on it’s way our into the country. ……. this second truck, after making it’s run to the wrong place, used up so much gas, that it ran out of the necessary fluid just before it reached the Messer home. Fortunately, it was not needed.”
When the senior generation of Galax passes on, there will be few if any citizens who will remember John A. Messer, Sr. There are no roads or buildings named in his honor. Why? Because every time he was asked for financial assistance he usually replied that he would match what they were able to raise and that his name was not to be connected to the event. There are little churches all over the area who were given financial support by John Messer Sr. Students knew they could depend upon him for financial support for school activities. Town leaders knew that they could depend upon John Messer Sr for support and assistance. One local resident wrote that he had heard Mr. Messer make the following statement: “I deem it a disservice to myself should any lodge Brethren know of a fellow Brethren in need and not inform me so I can come to his assistance.” He also wrote “it was well known that should a Brethren wish to join the Shrine Organization of the Masonic Lodge and be short of funds for the initiation fees Mr. Messer could be counted on to help.” The resident wrote that in his forty plus years as an active Mason John Messer stands out as what a true Mason should be with his exemplary deeds.
John Messer set a high example for his children. He strongly believed in helping his fellowman and improving his community by being involved in family, civic, church and political activities. Beatrice graduated from Galax High School in the class of 1928 and Gertie graduated in the class of 1931. Kenneth graduated from Staunton Military Academy in 1935 and his brother John was a member of the class of 1937. It is very evident that they learned their lessons well. All four children became confident, concerned and dedicated parents, citizens and members of their church.
There is an old Jewish doctrine that best describes John Alvin Messer Sr.’s outlook on life. The Mitzavah of Tzedakah is the habit of giving. It is the quiet act of helping your fellowman when they are in need. If you have been blessed with abundance and resources it is your duty to hear the cries of your fellowmen. John Itzig Mesoritzky Messer was such a man.
To honor their grandfather five of his grandchildren added John Itzig Mesoritzky Messer’s name to the Ellis Island Wall of Honor. A fitting tribute to a 9 year old boy who was brave enough to leave the only home he had known in Russia and travel across the ocean to a strange new country where he didn’t know the customs, laws and possibly the language. From his four children he now has descendants from Virginia to California, Maine to Florida; and all continuing the family tradition of Tzedakah!