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Popps, Popp’s or Popps’ Ferry? Street signs aren’t consistent, so we let history be the guide

The best way to correct wrong history on John F. Popp is through the old newspapers. Here are clips from The Daily Herald in Biloxi and a New Orleans newspapers. Popp died a century ago but his legacy lives on in Biloxi through his name on a community, a bridge and a road.
The best way to correct wrong history on John F. Popp is through the old newspapers. Here are clips from The Daily Herald in Biloxi and a New Orleans newspapers. Popp died a century ago but his legacy lives on in Biloxi through his name on a community, a bridge and a road. Illustration by Kat Bergeron

The $64,000 question: Should the name of the historic community and its bridge across Biloxi Bay be Popps Ferry? Or Popp’s Ferry? Or Popps’ Ferry?

This is not the first time I have tackled the inconsistency of the placement of — or absence of — the modifying apostrophe when the name appears on maps, street and bridge signs, in history books and media articles, but most of all, in our collective Mississippi Coast memory.

Each time my answer has survived about as long as an icicle on a typical Coast winter day. And the debate has again reared its quizzical head.

“Popps or Popp’s?” Larry George of Biloxi teased me in the hash tag of a recent e-mail.

“Street signs abound in Biloxi with these variations in name apparently at the whim of whichever contractor put up the signs. I even made a plea at a fairly recent councilman town hall to pick one and stick with it. Even writers at your old alma mater, the Sun Herald, cannot decide which version to use.”

George recalled that, through the years, he’d read explanations about a possibly German family linked to the original late-1800s ferry, thus the bridge and road that still carries the name. Sometimes the family name was Popps, and sometimes Popp, he noted. He even located one old story that claimed the ferry was owned by a New Orleans car dealer named Popp.

“As our long-time expert in Gulf Coast history, perhaps you can settle this matter,” he continued in his email. “Which is it?”

Popp goes the fact bubble

Thanks for the compliment, Larry George, but it is hard for me to live up to it because Coast history is continually being updated. Newly discovered documents and quicker digital research tools often prove that what was reported in the past is not always so, or maybe only partly so. The Popp’s/Popps’ conundrum is no exception.

Today, I write with certainty that the man who owned the original ferry across the Back Bay of Biloxi was John Frederick Popp. If we and all the powers that be in charge of those signs adhere to proper grammar rules, the name should be Popp’s Ferry.

The placement of the apostrophe properly denotes it as the ferry of Popp. If we put the apostrophe at the end of the name, the family would incorrectly be Popps.

Popp it is.

Thanks, Larry George, for sending me on a hunt for new stuff on “Ole Man Popp.” In my mind that’s how I think of him, although I couldn’t explain why until my updated research. I know realize that by late-19th century, early 20th-century standards, Popp was of an advanced “ole” age.

Never too old to restart

In 1915, Popp, a widower of nearly five years, married his second wife. This newspaper made a big deal about his age.

“Mr. Popp is 79, but like old Adam in ‘As You Like It,’ his age is as a lusty winter, frosty but kindly. The bride is 61,” The Daily Herald quoted and embellished from a New Orleans newspaper report.

Coast readers likely relished the gossip. Popp had local connections dating to the early 1860s, and only seven months earlier sold his large Coast estate to move to New Orleans. Called The Popp Place or Popp’s Place, the 200-plus acres was north of the bay.

Popp’s second wife, who was the younger sister of his first wife, had lived at Popp’s Place for years, setting the stage for a brother-in-law to become a husband.

This European immigrant who began his American life as a baker’s helper/bookkeeper made his fortune in lumber in South Mississippi and New Orleans. He built a ferry so he and guests could reach his beautiful house on Back Bay.

This generous man of means allowed the public to use his ferry because there was no bridge.

Groundwork for the future

Popp’s land would become a seed for the Sunkist neighborhood in present-day Biloxi, although it was very rural Harrison County in those days. The subdivision didn’t surface, however, until a handful of developers failed at their dreams of creating a Hollywood-like movie center, a resort, a cattle ranch and an oil field on the former Popp land.

Meanwhile, the aging groom and his bride, “the comely matron with never a gray hair in her head, nor a single wrinkle,” were making a philanthropic name for themselves in New Orleans. Most notably, their money helped develop Audubon Park.

A century later, sketchy and incorrect histories continue to leave their mark on the Popp story.

The first obituary for the 82-year-old Popp, for example, states he was from Germany. That was quickly corrected to explain he was a native of Denmark, born in “Schleswig-Holstein, Prussia, at that time a Danish possession.”

The distinction was likely made because of American feelings about Germany in these final throes of World War I. It certainly explains why earlier histories, including mine, say he was a German immigrant. Digital search tools now allow us to find the corrected follow-up obits.

Other interesting Popp factoids are restrained in my inch-high pile of new research, but I’ve run out of space today. Stay tuned. After I whiz through holiday writings we’ll return to the Popp’s microscope.

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.

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