Years of business: Graessle-Mercer Co. to close

There’s a large book on a shelf inside the Graessle-Mercer Co. office, and if you brush off some dust, you’ll see the book lists the company’s invoices from 1905.

The 113-year-old book contains pages of orders for items sent all over the United States that year. It is a chronicle of the company’s second year in business and its early days of printing products.

It’s hard to tell how long it took First National Bank in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, to receive materials it ordered, but it was an early customer featured in the book.

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As thick as 1905’s invoice book is, you would need even more pages to fill the history of this printing giant founded by Dr. George G. Graessle in 1904. Most of its history has been in an office and plant at 100 N. Pine St. in Seymour.

The company has spanned four generations, but the final chapter will be written in a few months as owners George and Jane Graessle recently announced the business will stop taking orders in early December and close in early 2019.

It was a difficult decision since Graessle-Mercer has been in the family for more than century. George started working on a press in 1974 and has led the company since 1976.

“It’s been in the family for so long, and that’s why it’s been hard to close,” George said. “I decided this about three years ago, but I just haven’t been able to do it. It’s been hard.”

The company is in the process of finding buyers for equipment, too.

The business was established in March 1904 by George’s great-grandfather as the Graessle Calendar Factory and specialized in perpetual calendar printing. The business was founded in a building on the corner of Tipton and Chestnut streets across from Larrison’s Diner.

George has a perpetual calendar the company produced in 1904 still sitting on his desk. His son happened to find the calendar, which includes a clock and was produced for The Bank of Fairmount in West Virginia, on a website and purchased it.

“It’s kind of unique,” he said.

After the first year, the company began commercial printing for many years and expanded to printing publications in the late 1950s.

“That’s what we’re geared for now is printing publications,” he said.

At one time, the company printed as many as 30 publications each year before the Great Recession.

“The 2008 recession really hurt publications and trade publications,” he said.

The company would print horse and machine tool trading publications, but once the economy took a downturn and publications lost advertising, the demand never fully returned.

“A lot has moved online,” he said. “The commercial work has been OK, but there just isn’t enough of it.”

So George at 67 and Jane at 68 decided it was time to close the company. It employs seven people, but when business was booming, it employed as many as 30.

“Technology ate a lot of those jobs up as time went by,” he said.

Sometimes, the company would run two 12-hour shifts for days at a time to get publications out the door.

The company did a lot of printing for Indiana University, including an alumni publication. That’s an interesting project since Graessle is an alumnus and was even a manager for legendary basketball coach Bob Knight.

There’s also a little bit of mystery surrounding the business’ name. The Mercer part comes from Frank Mercer, who was a linotype operator in the early days of the business. It’s unclear whether he ever had an ownership stake in the business or what his role was later on.

Mercer passed away in 1936 after he had moved to Champaign, Illinois, according to The Tribune.

George doesn’t know much about the Mercer in the name. Archives from The Tribune show the company has always been Graessle-Mercer since it was referenced in 1904.

“He was a guy who was here for a short time, and I’d always ask my dad who Mercer was,” he said.

George said his father told him the man worked at the plant for a short time.

“He always liked to laugh and say he was too cheap to reprint the letterheads, so they kept Graessle-Mercer,” George said.

The name has led to a little confusion on multiple occasions. Like the times when they’d go to a county for a printing bid and people would think George’s last name was Mercer.

“I’d go to the counties and they’d say, ‘How are you, Mr. Mercer?’” he said, adding his father was known by officials as Mr. Graessle. “I always had to tell them I was a Graessle, too.”

Much like the company itself, some of the equipment has an interesting history.

George told the story of purchasing a multicolor press at a business in Chicago in 1979.

“It was on the seventh floor of a building,” George said.

The press was unique because it was used to print various side publications for Playboy magazine.

The press was featured in a 1979 issue of the famous magazine.

“That was the press we ended up buying. Pretty interesting if you ask me,” he said.

That press helped the business offer multicolor products, which helped it grow.

“That made a huge difference,” he said.

In retirement, the couple — who have been married 41 years — will do a little traveling, but beyond that, George and Jane aren’t sure what life will be like without going to work at the company.

“I really don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t.”

Jane has always helped with the business but began working more after raising the couple’s children. In the 1990s, she really began working full time and can pretty much do anything at the company.

Sometimes, raising the couple’s children meant coming into the office to help when needed.

“I’d come in and have a baby playing on the floor somewhere around here,” she said.

They took pride in making deadlines and getting products to customers on time.

“A deadline is a deadline,” Jane said.

But thinking about having those constant deadlines doesn’t seem so bad.

“That’s going to be a relief not to worry about deadlines,” she said.

Employees have made the difference, the couple said. Some of them have spent more than 35 years with the company. It will be hard closing the doors, they said.

“We’ve always had great employees,” George said. “That’s the reason it’s been going this long.”

Jane agreed.

“They all pitch in and do everything,” she said. “They’ve been the best.”

Those employees helped make Graessle-Mercer, and so did the customers all these years, especially in the early days like a customer named C. Able.

Able was the first customer written in that 1905 invoice book. He purchased 1,000 statements, 300 letterheads and two other items for a total of $9.50.

Able paid it off over the course of three payments, and his address was simply labeled “city.”

George found that book sometime in the late 1970s while cleaning the company’s basement.

“It’s really interesting to see,” George said while flipping through the pages before closing the book.