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Published: 11/26/2001

Napoleon businessman leaves his company's mark on history

Glenn Nelson works on a bronze marker in his shop in Napoleon, where he has eight employees. Glenn Nelson works on a bronze marker in his shop in Napoleon, where he has eight employees.
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The words are not necessarily his, but Mr. Nelson is the one who arranges and casts them in bronze to make historical markers in his little shop here.

His Smith-Cornell Impressions business makes those sturdy plaques seen at famous, infamous, well-known, and little-known sites.

His plaques can be found from Toledo to Florida and St. Croix to Hawaii. Luckily, he has chosen a rare profession.

“Well, it is a unique field,” Mr. Nelson, 56, admits.

If the new Mud Hens stadium and rejuvenated warehouse district bring Toledoans there, they'll see Nelson-made plaques describing the history of what is dubbed Huron Street Village.

Also for Toledo, the Napoleon shop will make historical markers for the Union Memorial Archway from the old Electric Auto-Lite factory, commemorating that site's bloody union strike in 1934.

Mr. Nelson's sand-cast, poured-bronze, painted-and-polished plaques have been placed at roadsides, on building fronts, and even at a northwest Ohio tree.

The oak tree is in Texas, Ohio. “It was planted by Indians in honor of the first white girl born in this area,” Mr. Nelson says.

That little gem from the past has added to Mr. Nelson's personal historical knowledge, which has grown since he began writing in bronze or aluminum.

“Sometimes I wonder why people around here don't know more about the northwest Ohio history,” he says. “But then, I wasn't a history buff until I bought this company. Now I am. Once I start making a plaque, I want to know everything about it.”

The oldest house in the United States has a Nelson plaque. “The house was built in 1540, in St. Augustine, Fla. Besides being on the National Register, the man restoring it had us tell the whole story of Spaniards settling there and early governors,” Mr. Nelson says.

Centuries-old graves were dug up near the governor's house in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. “They had us make plaques. We told the story of who [the bodies] were,” Mr. Nelson says.

One of the more unusual Nelson plaques is on a cabin built by a young woman in Talkeetna, a town in Alaska. “Her mother had us make it. It's inscribed: `Margareth Burd, architect and builder.'”

A Nelson plaque in Pallulah, Miss., notes one of America's oldest conservation clubs, where Teddy Roosevelt once shot a bear.

The village of Todd, N.C., had Mr. Nelson craft 15 plaques for old buildings and one huge 110-pound marker that tells the town's history.

He has made historical plaques for Monticello, the Thomas Jefferson plantation in Virginia. He has created markers for old homes in Honolulu and a restored bed and breakfast in Greenville, Ohio. Nelson plaques denote the “first boats” to arrive in New Orleans.

He says he even made a plaque to commemorate a Toledo parking lot that won architectural awards.

There are designs on his drawing board for a New York man named Edwin Bogt. “We'll cast the presidential oath and presidential prayer in bronze. Mr. Bogt says he'll present them to the President,” Mr. Nelson says.

“Maybe our plaques will hang in the White House, but I'll believe that when I see it.”

Mr. Nelson is working on two large markers for a park in Dawson, N.M., and says he has a commission from a Mormon cemetery in American Fork, Utah. “They want us to put whole family histories and pictures on plaques.

“Here's one,” he says, looking at paperwork. “It's for a schoolteacher who had three wives and 24 kids.”

Cost of the bronze plaques ranges from $125 up to the $75,000 he gave as an estimate for making 17 Cherokee Indian memorials. “We haven't heard back on that one,” Mr. Nelson says.

The marker maker donates one plaque a year to the Henry County Historical Society. There is a Nelson plaque in Ridgeville Corners at 1916-built Giffey Hall, now home to Archbold Community Theatre. He is working on a plaque for a restored Victorian house in Napoleon.

“Mr. Nelson is very historically minded and wants to listen to the history of places, so we've been lucky,” says Peggy Bohls of the historical society. “The plaques are great, not cheap things at all.”

The bronze plaques “will outlast both you and me,” says Mr. Nelson, who bought the company in 1999 when it was in Maumee. Founded in 1976 by an Auburn, Ind., lawyer, it was owned by the S.E. Johnson Co. when Mr. Nelson, who had been a metals salesman, bought and moved it to Napoleon.

He employs eight people, two full-time, and students who work part-time.

Not all jobs are for historical markers. Mr. Nelson made nameplates for furnaces at Surface Combustion, Inc. in Toledo.

“And we made an eight-inch bronze button for a button store on Fifth Avenue in New York,” Mr. Nelson says. “They use it for a fancy doorknob.”



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