First Coast automobile crashed onto the scene 116 years ago

The early automobiles on the Coast often didn’t mix with horses, but later horses became more rare than cars. This undated photo from the L.J. “Joe” Scholtes Collection identifies the two young women as Alma Parker and Phyllis Hunt and Joe Morse on the horse.
The early automobiles on the Coast often didn’t mix with horses, but later horses became more rare than cars. This undated photo from the L.J. “Joe” Scholtes Collection identifies the two young women as Alma Parker and Phyllis Hunt and Joe Morse on the horse. Collection/Southern Possum Tales

I’m a little hunk of tin.

Nobody knows what shape I’m in.

I’ve got four wheels and a running board...

Honk, honk. Rattle, rattle. CRASH! Beep, beep.

The childhood sing-along came to mind as I research the first automobile to honk on the Mississippi Coast. Crash! is a keyword to this tale.

If you think the 21st century technology of driverless cars is amazing, imagine how astounding it would be to witness the first-ever car to maneuver Coast’s streets when roads were unpaved and used by horses, walkers, bicycles and the occasional wayward milk cow. The first car rolled down Coast roads in June 1900.

Locals knew autos existed because this newspaper, then known as The Biloxi Daily Herald, happily reported on the improving invention found in progressive cities. These horseless carriages were slow to invade Small Town America.

Autos in assorted incarnations have existed since the late 1700s but not until the 1880s did they start to become popular. That’s when Germans invented the practical internal combustion gas engine.

Even then, autos were more novel than practical. Soon came the mass production and distinctive names. However, the Herald doesn’t mention the car brand that came to the Coast in 1900.

The big arrival day

“Next Sunday there will be introduced in this city an automobile carriage, which will be under the management of Mr. Frank Schaffer,” the Herald reported June 21, 1900, following up six days later:

On June 27, this:

“Mr. Frank Shaffer yesterday received his automobile from New Orleans and thinks it will be just the thing to use on our shell roads. Unfortunately when the vehicle came, in unloading it from the schooner one of the irons gave way, and it had to be taken to the shop to be repaired ... It was in shape to be out in the afternoon and attracted considerable attention. When the autimobile comes along, people will have to hold their horses until the animals become accustomed to the horseless carriage.”

In the dozen or so articles about this venture, the newspaper spells his last name three different ways as Shaffer, Schaffer and Schaeffer. That makes it difficult to learn more about the man.

A Schaffer in unrelated stores was a “hackman” in the transport business, so this might be him. He was a volunteer fireman, founder of the West End Fire Company and sang at public events.

The Schaffer/Shaffer/Schaeffer of our story charged 25 cents for a ride in his automobile, about $6.27 today. One elderly Howard Avenue woman said she’d never been as far as Mobile but “dead sure she had to take a ride” if she could “raise up” the 25 cents. That was also the price of five pounds of sugar.

The July 1 edition reported a “short mishap” when “the young man guiding it did not know as much about its operation as he thought.” The canopy was nearly knocked off by a tree limb.

This from July 3: “There was a long and strong kick against the automobile when it first came here because the horses got frightened at it, but we believe all protests have been withdrawn because the animals now treat it with scorn and say it ‘don’t amount to much, no how.”

Three days later a report claimed Biloxi was the only city in the state that “supports an automobile.”

A big question mark rises from an incomplete July 25 article: “Later advices in reference to the automobile accident the other day are to the effect that the auto did not collide with the dairy wagon but the animals attached to the latter vehicle took fright, and turning around suddenly upset the wagon.

“The gentlemen who manipulate the auto say the machine is completely under their control.”

Honk, honk. Rattle, rattle. CRASH! Beep, beep.

So what happened?

I found no Herald followups and in fact no more mentions of Schaffer’s car. Are you also curious about who this forward thinking fellow really is?

About 20 years ago I researched this same tale and settled on Shaeffer as the spelling. I wrote, “Shaeffer was 35 (nearly) years old and had lived in Biloxi for two years when the automobile rolled off the boat. When he died in 1910, he was running a soft-drink stand at the Kennedy Hotel.”

Today little red flags raise over that statement because I now know there was a Frank Schaffer who had a soft-drink stand at the same hotel. That Schaffer got in trouble for selling hard drinks.

My original file is gone, but at that time I reported the motor for Biloxi’s first automobile ended up the next year in a large schooner that sailed the Mississippi Sound.

That’s a Wow! for sure. Motorized Coast fishing vessels at the turn of the 20th Century had to be even rarer than automobiles, even crashed ones.