A century after his 1918 death, the name of John F. Popp lives on in a school, a road, a bridge, a number of businesses and a community. If this European immigrant were to return, he would be surprised that his name, not his role in development of the Mississippi Coast, is his legacy.
Popp, who would make a fortune in the Gulf lumber trade, first arrived on the Coast in the mid-19th Century, but he had no children to keep his contributions in the forefront.
The family name, however, lives on, even if it is the object of spelling and grammar debates. Official publications, signs and maps vary from Popps, Popp’s and Popp. Last month in this missive we settled on the correct last name as “Popp.”
A closer look at Popp
Today we take a closer look at this fascinating man. His story is compiled mostly from old newspaper articles from the Coast and New Orleans, as past mentions of him are often incorrect. Modern research tools, digitized newspapers and timelines make the search easier and more accurate.
If not for the generosity of letting the public use his private ferry to cross Biloxi Bay, the Popp name likely would be forgotten. He began operating the private ferry (likely in the late 1880s) so that he, his wife’s New Orleans-based family, guests and deliverymen could cross Biloxi Bay to reach their large estate, variously referred to as The Popp Place, Popp’s Place and Popp’s Ferry.
In the early 20th century as public ferries, then roads and bridges replaced Popp’s personal transport, locals honored Popp by retaining his place name.
“Popp’s Ferry, a beautiful part of Harrison County bordering on the Tchoutacabouffa River, was also named after Mr. Popp,” this newspaper, then called The Daily Herald, explained at his 1918 death.
Another obituary remarked, “He was a man of business genius, a philanthropist.”
New life in the New World
Popp was not a rich man when in 1856 he crossed the sea at age 19 or 20. His first job was “in St. Louis,” most likely Missouri, where he “filled a clerical position for a few months.” He soon moved to New Orleans where he worked for a bakery.
That didn’t hold his attention long and within a year or so Popp headed to the Coast to be “engaged in merchandising and sawmilling” in Harrison County. He was in his mid-20s when the Civil War broke out, joined the 20th Mississippi Regiment, was captured then imprisoned at Camp Douglas in Chicago.
Details are sketchy, but one article at his death claims he escaped and “aided the people on the Gulf Coast during the war, smuggling provisions through the Yankee lines.”
After the war, Popp was back in New Orleans, trying to make money in the lumber business in the new firm of Popp and Elliott. In 1866 he married Mary Francis Grant of New Orleans but their 44-year marriage produced no heirs.
His business eventually changed to John F. Popp and Co., and at some point he made investments in Coast timberland. Popp had enough money by the early 1880s to retire, and he and Mary spent much of their time at their estate north of the bay and bordering the Tchoutcheouffa River.
News articles mention a large beautiful home there, certainly big enough for an extended family because Mary’s two sisters lived with them.
Becoming part of Coast society
Popp became ingrained in Coast living. In 1861 he joined Masonic Polar Star Lodge #154, located in present-day Gulfport. Family activities were mentioned in the Herald’s social columns, as were visitors to Popp’s Ferry, especially those who bragged of the great fishing on waters bordering the estate.
Mary died in July 1910 in the private hospital called The Biloxi Sanatorium, “after an illness of long duration and intense suffering.” She was a wealthy woman herself, leaving $50,000 (about $1.4 million today) to a niece and nephew, and the rest of her estate to her sister, Rebecca Grant.
Nearly five years later, Rebecca at 61 became Popp’s second wife. Both the New Orleans and Biloxi newspapers made a big deal about the marriage, pointing out the groom’s advanced age of 79, declaring “love is never too old.”
A year before the marriage, Popp and his first wife’s sisters set up housekeeping in New Orleans. That same year, 1914, Popp sold his 200-acre “farm on the Tchoutcheouffa” for $20,000, about $494,000 today. Land was much cheaper then, as most of the giant, virgin yellow pine forests — South Mississippi’s first economic engine — were felled and the Coast’s rural enclaves were still developing.
The newly married made quite a reputation for themselves in New Orleans as philanthropists, generously helping develop and improve the famous City Park and Audubon Park. When Rebecca Popp died five years after her husband, she was hailed as the “the fairy godmother of Audubon.”
What is the Popp legacy?
At his own 1918 death, a headline declared the Popp estate value at $247,000, nearly $4 million today. But he’d already put property in his wives’ names, so the wealth of the once struggling immigrant-turned-millionaire would be hard to calculate. His European family background and why he came to America in 1856 is still unknown.
Ancestry research sites tell us Popp is a Germanic name dating to Medieval times, likely from Bodobert (later Boppo and Poppo), translated as “famous leader.”
Even in his lifetime, newspapers reported Popp had immigrated from Germany, a fact corrected at his death in 1918. Why? World War I raged and immigrants from Germany and other Axis countries were labeled “enemy aliens” in this country.
“John F. Popp, aged 82 years, a native of Germany and resident of New Orleans for the past number of years, died at his home in that city,” this newspaper reported Sept. 14, 1918.
The next day, newspapers clarified that “John F. Popp was a native of Denmark,” explaining that he was born in Prussia in 1835 when it was a Danish possession. His family wanted no part of Germany as the Popp legacy.
Today, that legacy lives on in the Popp’s Ferry name, even if few know who he was.
Note from the Chronicler: The developer who bought the Popp estate in 1914 had big plans — from a resort he renamed Sunkist to a Hollywood-style movie studio to cattle ranch. At some later date we’ll explore those stories to end the saga, “The ferry that Popp built.”
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.