Retired craftsman saves liberty statue, continues trade

Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Beno Messer made a mold from a previous statue's points and handcrafted each piece. From the back, it's hard to imagine points on the Sister of Liberty's crown are made of two separate pieces of metal. (Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)

Craftsmanship, integrity, hard work. The dedication Beno Messer has given to each of his projects has spanned five decades and can be found in decoration throughout the county.

From designing wrought iron fencing and flagpoles in Slater's Veteran's Park, to making waste bins, tree guards and banner arms on Marshall's downtown square, Messer feels he's put as much of himself into the small projects as the large.

After refurbishing the Sister of Liberty statue that welcomes students to Slater Public Schools, Messer was recommended to Marshall Parks Director Jeff Stubblefield to overhaul the park's own Lady Liberty.

Beno Messer stands next to one of the machines in his Slater shop. Nearly every piece of equipment is painted, and Messer continues to use tools he's either made or had for years. (Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)

"It's outstanding," Stubblefield said of the completed statue. "You can't tell where the old parts stop and the new parts begin."

Though Messer retired several years ago, he felt the statue was a significant project. His decision saved Marshall Parks Department more than $10,000. It also produced a statue as vibrant and strong as it was in the 1950s.

More than 200 Sisters of Liberty were distributed by Boy Scout troops in celebration of the Scout's 40th anniversary theme, "Strengthen the Arm of Liberty." They stand about 8 1/2 feet tall.

"I questioned (Messer) two or three times," Stubblefield continued, asking the craftsman if he's sure it was the same statue. "It's beautiful work."

Gene Griffith, Slater assistant city administrator, had no hesitation in recommending Messer for the job.

"He totally disassembled the statue" at Slater Schools, Griffith said.

Not only was Griffith impressed with the work Messer had done, he has known the craftsman since childhood.

An ornamental waterfall was one of the gifts Beno Messer made for his wife, Hannelore. Each leaf was carved from sheet metal, and Messer also designed the wrought iron fence that surrounds the fountain. (Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)

Griffith grew up next door to Messer's Machine Shop, learning from everything he saw during the hours he spent there as a child. Messer taught him a lot of the trade as well.

"He taught me to weld," Griffith continued. "I used to go to the country with him and check on his cows. I think he was just stuck with me because I was always hanging around."

It's easy to see how a young boy could get lost in the world of Messer's Machine Shop. Brilliant orange and green machines poke out from every corner, tools used by the craftsman are displayed along the wall. It's an energetic space.

"I like how bright the paint is -- things are easier to see," Messer said. "I was 22 years old when I built (the shop). It was half this size."

Messer credits Wolfskill Motor Company of Slater for teaching him the skills he has. He began working there when he was just 15 years old.

"They taught me everything I know," Messer continued. "That older generation ... whatever you need, you make it."

Messer went on to attend a machine and welding school in Troy, Ohio. In the past 50 years, he's fixed everything from eyeglasses to airplanes. He designed several gears for a Louisiana railroad and put the first power steering on combines. Work used to come into the shop from across the state.

"If the job was worth fixing, we never said 'no,'" Messer said.

His crew typically consisted of 10 men, who were loyal to the shop and the work. Two of them worked for Messer for 21 years.

"The shop never had any hours," he continued. "We worked any time."

So many projects would line up that Messer's wife, Hannelore, brought dinner to the shop. He smiled and pointed at the park that neighbors the orange building. The four-bedroom home he once lived in used to occupy the lot. Now it's a park dedicated to his parents.

A craftsman can't keep his hands from working, which is true in Messer's case. He makes something every Christmas for his wife Hannelore.

"The details make all the difference," Hannelore said.

At their home, Messer sat in front of an elaborate lighthouse that sits more than two feet tall. He flipped a switch, and the beacon flared against the pane of their front window.

Beno Messer plays with the lighthouse he designed for his wife. Each year, Messer makes Hannelore a gift for Christmas. They've been married 50 years. (Sarah Reed/Democrat-News)

They smiled, saying, "Now watch this."

A Christmas tree glowed inside the main floor of the lighthouse. It's one of Messer's favorite concepts.

"I like making toys," he said. "It's all machined out. It's not (pieces) welded together."

Filling the yard is what seems like an endless number of garden lampposts and ornaments, water fountains and a weather vane, all for Hannelore.

Retirement hasn't slowed Messer down. He's most likely working on a new project for his wife of 50 years. And the Sister of Liberty statue, now complete, is expected to be installed within the next week.

It took Messer two weeks just to build Lady Liberty's crown.

"Her head was all beat down," Messer said.

In addition to the body, Messer refurbished her book, fixing the shape and the lettering, and added details to the base of the statue.

Finding a craftsman such as Messer may no longer be an easy task. But the craftsman said he owes his success to the goodness of people around him -- he just worked to make things right for them.

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