George S. Messersmith Introduction
George S. Messersmith lived in Fleetwood for his first 18 years. I must assume he graduated from Fleetwood schools (the historical society has not been able to locate any records to confirm this) but he did graduate from Kutztown Normal School in 1900 at the age of 18. His younger brother Robert (1883-1929) graduated from Fleetwood High School in 1902. The early years of his grandfather and father in Fleetwood coincide with all the legendary names in the early history of Fleetwood, including Schlegel, Wanner, Schaeffer, Kutz, Gambler, Sholl, Cox, Messersmith, Melot, Reifsnyder, Merkel, Folk, Hoch, Young, Hill, Kelchner and many others.
“His name doesn’t remind me of an American diplomat but of a Nazi fighter plane!” sniped columnist Walter Winchell in December of 1943. The name in question belonged to George Strausser Messersmith, a distinguished thirty-year veteran of United States foreign service whose finest moment, ironically, had come as consul general in Berlin exactly a decade before. That was when he was known as “the terror of Nazi Germany”, probably the most fearless and determined foe Hitler’s gang faced, then or ever, among Western diplomats.
“The distant and remote held a particular charm for me as a child,” recalled George Strausser Messersmith in his unpublished memoirs. At an early age he displayed a restless energy that his native Berks County, Pennsylvania, would not long contain. There his forebears, Presbyterians from the Rhineland, had settled upon their arrival in the English colonies in the early 1700s, and there are remnants of the clan that remain in Fleetwood to this day. The Messersmiths, like most of their Pennsylvania Dutch neighbors, were enterprising folk. In the 1820s, John Messersmith (George Messersmiths grandfather), a tailor, along with fifteen other artisans, founded the Berks hamlet of Coxtown, dubbed “Crowtown” by local wags because of a sign showing a crow on the Farmers and Drovers Hotel, an apt appellation for the handful of log cabins that the place remained for a generation. But the picture changed in 1857. After feverish lobbying by the townspeople, the East Pennsylvania Railroad decided to run its tracks through their streets. It marked a new beginning for Coxtown, which, accordingly (and shrewdly) changed its name to Fleetwood. Prosperity came almost instantaneously, and the Messersmiths were part of it. In the late 1860s, John’s son Charles (George Messersmiths father) , born in 1846, became a partner in a wadding mill. The mill was built on the south side of the new railroad tracks and near the Fleetwood Dam. By 1870 he had twenty people on the payroll, and annual sales in excess of $100,000. Charles plowed his profits into real estate, an iron mine, and “a two-story frame tenant house,” perhaps for his employees. He took a wife, Caroline Schaeffer (she died shortly thereafter), and built her a fine brick house. Then, in his crowning achievement, he bought out his partners and became the mill’s sole proprietor.
Then his world fell tragically apart. In May of 1873 the Messersmith mill was destroyed by fire. Charles had to watch much of the family’s property being carted off by his many creditors. Shortly thereafter, Caroline died, at the age of twenty-six.
But the grieving widower battled back. Salvaging opportunity from adversity, he became a partner in a new entrepreneurial venture: fire insurance. He took a new wife: Sarah (Sallie) Strausser, of another venerable Berks family, a widow with two children. Soon there were offspring of their own: George in 1883 and Robert two years later. And, if slow to recoup his fortune, Charles retained every bit of his standing in the community. He remained active in public affairs, serving on the town school board and a term as postmaster. But the effort to restore his credit and self-respect literally consumed him. In 1889, at the age of forty-three, Charles Messersmith died. Sallie was again a widow, with two young sons to raise and debts still to pay.
“Growing up in Fleetwood and Kutztown Normal School” Fortunately she was a strong and resourceful woman, “a most extraordinary mother,” George later wrote. Somehow she managed to provide life’s necessities for her brood, without neglecting their moral and intellectual growth. She introduced George to the novels of Thackeray, Scott, and Austen. By the age of eleven he had read them all, books that stirred his imagination with far-off places and people and imbued him with a fierce and absolute sense of right and wrong.
George left nothing in writing about his father or his feelings upon his death. The son was always an intensely private person, especially on the record. He could hardly have remembered very much about Charles in any case, absorbed as the father was with his business affairs during the scant six years that George had him. Yet Charles’s influence left its mark. George inherited his assiduity and civic-mindedness. And, as he passed into adulthood, the son exhibited the practical bent characteristic of Pennsylvania Dutchmen. This put a temporary damper on his wanderlust and set his thoughts to earning a secure living. Considering his mother’s fondness for books and his father’s involvement in public education, it is perhaps natural that George, upon graduation from high school, should opt for a career in the classroom himself. Teaching was a respectable profession and, most of all, he could quickly and cheaply acquire at the state normal school at nearby Kutztown while living frugally at home. He completed the two-year Kutztown course of study and, in 1900, the eighteen-year-old Messersmith was hired to teach in the one-room schoolhouse in the village of Woodside, Delaware. His days in Fleetwood were over
“Moving to Delaware and Teaching” He was not long for Woodside. Messersmith was a young man on the move. Opportunity beckoned in turn-of-the-century America, and he was determined to make the most of it. In 1902 he took a position as principal of the grade school in Felton, another small Delaware town. There he took a room with the family of John Bassett Moore, one of the country’s foremost international lawyers. To his disappointment, Messersmith was never to meet the eminent Moore during his stay in Felton, but Moore did hear about him from his folks. He was later to provide Messersmith with critical career guidance.
Staying with the Moores paid off in the short term, too. Among the well-to-do Delawareans to whom they introduced him were the Mustards of Lewes, another of the state’s leading families. The Mustards would give him a wife, and much more. Robert Mustard had founded the Shanghai branch of the American Tobacco Company, two and his brother Lewis, with his wife and three children, joined him in China for extended stays. Robert and Lewis’s uncle was E. W Tunnell, governor of Delaware during the 1880s, and a close associate of Thomas F. Bayard, secretary of state in the first administration of Grover Cleveland. It was through Tunnell that Bayard had met John Bassett Moore and brought him to the State Department in 1885.