The Mississippi Coast entrepreneur who brought the first automobile to this state was Frank A. Schaeffer. This unfamiliar name may cause you to yawn, but learning the correct name revs my engine.
When reporting on the momentous turn-of-the-20th-century event, this newspaper spelled the man’s last name three different ways, none of which were correct. That in turn caused me to misspell Schaeffer’s name whenever I tackled local car history.
Knowing the correct spelling makes research easier. Now I have Schaeffer’s 1910 obituary, which sadly doesn’t mention his epochal car venture 10 years earlier.
We know Schaeffer brought the first car here because in June 1900 he wisely offered a Daily Herald staffer — that’s what this newspaper was called — a maiden-voyage ride. The resulting Herald article crowed:
“Mr. Shaffer [sic] will no doubt find his auto very popular with all people who wish to ride, either on business or on pleasure. We take pleasure in commending it to all.”
Reason to revisit
Earlier this month, Chronicles tackled Shaffer/Schaffer/Shaeffer, [sic/sic/sic] but learning the real spelling gives me an excuse to again write about the man who moved from Louisiana to Biloxi in 1898.
Thankfully, Schaeffer’s granddaughter called us after the first publication to settle the spelling and fill in some blanks.
“My great grandfather died long before I was born so I don’t know a lot about him but I grew up with the story about the car he brought from New Orleans to Biloxi,” explained Jerry Anne Rosetti of D’Iberville.
Only a quarter for a lifetime memory
Schaeffer used the newfangled car like a taxi service, offering the brave and adventurous a ride for 25 cents. It startled horses, had several near misses and crashes, evidently one so bad it couldn’t be fixed. The motor was then used to modernize one of the fishing schooners, and Rosetti has a theory about how that came to be.
“My great-grandfather had six children, and one of them named Edgar used to work on one of the schooners and participated in those historic Biloxi schooner races,” the great-granddaughter said. “Uncle Edgar’s connection to the schooners is probably why the engine ended up in one.”
For sure, a schooner sailed the car from New Orleans to Biloxi, as there were few roads in those days. Sadly, the family’s old photograph album of the history-making event was lost in Hurricane Katrina. We must rely on the newspaper accounts, misspellings and all, for the story.
“Unfortunately when the vehicle came, in unloading it from the schooner one of the irons gave way and it had to be take to the shop to be repaired,” reported the June 27, 1900, Herald. “Notwithstanding, the machine was in condition to run by itself, with its own motive power, from the beach to the depot.
“It was in shape to be out in the afternoon and attracted considerable attention. When the automobile comes along, people will have to hold their horses until the animals become accustomed to the horseless carriage.”
Other stories tell of mishaps and close calls, but more importantly, they record the curiosity and adventurousness of the turn-of-the-century Coast people. Many ponied up a quarter for a ride from this “hackman,” as proprietors and drivers in the horse-drawn transport business were then called.
Dropping out of history
Schaeffer’s obituary does not mention his bringing the first car to the state in 1900, but it should have. His story causes us to think about the influence of automobiles on Coast life and landscape, a change then as awesome and disconcerting as computers and Cyber Space are at the turn at the 21st Century.
Schaeffer died in 1910 when he was “stricken with an attack of appoplexy,” according to the newspaper. Today, that would likely be a stroke. At the time he ran a “soft drink stand” at the Kennedy Hotel in Biloxi, but family stories confirm it wasn’t just nonalcoholic drinks sold there.
Mississippi had passed prohibition two years earlier, long before there was National Prohibition. Many Coast locals, including the intrepid Schaeffer, simply ignored the liquor ban.
Schaeffer’s obituary mistakenly lists him as 45 years old. His great-granddaughter says he was actually 55, and that is what is listed on his headstone at the Old Biloxi Cemetery.
The Coast is finishing up this year’s Halloween cemetery tours, those fascinating public events that use actors and costumes to bring the region’s interesting and historic characters temporarily to life. Perhaps one day Mr. Frank A. Schaeffer will be one of them.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.