It is highly unlikely that Biloxi sailors back in the mid 1800s could have dreamed what their activity would lead to. Like entertaining Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1913 when he was secretary of the Navy and yachting guest of Ernest Lee Jahncke of New Orleans who had a summer home on East Beach. Among many other distinguished visitors feted by the popular Biloxians over the years were governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, and mayors of the larger southern cities who — with much help and many reassurances — participated in “championship” races over Biloxi’s renowned course.
They were a free-spirited crew, devotees of the cat boat, a singled, mast, shallow draft craft with an unusually wide beam. In his “Condensed History of the Biloxi Yacht Club,” Gerald J. Quave, a past BYC commodore, reports these boats were used primarily in shrimping until the growth of the seafood processing industry. Then, because of their limited size, roughly from 16 to 24 feet, they gave way to the Biloxi Schooner, a shallow draft, broad beam craft of from 0 to 60 feet in length. The “Biloxi Cat” remained popular on the coast as a recreational sailboat, however, and in time with the “Biloxi Schooner” became mainstay attractions of the many Biloxi Regattas.
According to Quave, the first regatta was staged in 1870, although old timers will tell you they have seen trophies engraved with “BYC” dated in the late 1850’s. Since little first hand information has surfaced from which to draw a clear picture of sailing before the turn of the century, it is left to speculation whether there was a Biloxi Yacht Club, or merely a band of sailors from the Biloxi area who called themselves by that name.
In her 1984 monthly Lee Sheet column, BYC Historian Mary Elizabeth Murfee pinned down the first sailing races sponsored by the Biloxi Yacht Club to August, 1888. “I supposed the reason that is the first recorded sailing race is because the Daily Herald files only go back to 1888,” she mused. “At any rate…that is a date to be commemorated…”
The mid 1800’s were remembered also as the organizational time for Gulf sailing activities. With many families along the coast owning yachts — a vessel with sails, emphasized a Down South magazine story in its May-June, 1976, issue — a group of men met in Pass Christian in 1849 and formed the Southern Yacht Club Association. A clubhouse was erected that same year at West End on Lake Pontchartrain. Only the New York Yacht Club, organized in 1844, is older in the United States.
Southern Yacht Club at once gave sailing the impetus it needed. Soon, members were sailing their yachts from New Orleans to Point Clear, Ala. Eastern Shore Yacht Club, and also organized races between these points. And, Biloxi took its cue.
It was midway and the seafood cannery owners saw in the visitors’ regattas a means of using their large fleets of schooners during the off season. Their fasted boats were finely tuned and raced, leading to a regular weekend schedule of races through the months of July and August.
Sailing enthusiasm was snowballing now. Families and friends by the hundreds gathered along the shore to watch the action, and they all had front row seats since the Biloxi channel ran close to the shore. A barge, anchored in front of the Montross Hotel, later renamed the Riviera, served as “committee boat” until several enterprising Biloxians saw an opportunity to boost their city’s popularity as a yachting center.
Given credit for the idea was Commodore T.P. Dulion. First it was to stage BYC’s premier regatta, a truly major sailing event that would lure the elite of Southern Yacht Club. With the help of John Carraway, cashier of the Bank of Biloxi, and H.F. Sawford, proprietor of the Montross Hotel, the regatta took place in August 1900, and drew approximately 50 entries. A suitable clubhouse for BYC was next.
By 1902 subscriptions for the building were ample to begin construction. It was designed by Theodore Brune, who had studied in Germany and had previously built the Dukate Theatre and the beautiful homes of Lopez and Dukate, Biloxi’s seafood canning industry pioneers.
The following description of the clubhouse is from an early account found in a booklet given to the Biloxi Library by the late Jacinto Baltar, prominent businessman, banker and civic leader.
The clubhouse is built on a foundation set in 10 feet of water directly opposite the Montross Hotel. A long pier connects the clubhouse with the shore. The building consists of four stories. On a level with the pier are the bathhouses and on either side of them are galleries with stairways leading down into the water. The second floor is reached by a stairway on the outside of the building, leading up directly from the end of the pier. Entering the hall, facing South, the reading room is on the left and the handsome ladies’ parlors on the right. Directly behind these rooms and extending the full with of the building is the lounging room. The furniture is handsome in design and finish and lends an air of attractiveness to the apartment. The ladies’ parlors are cozy laces, and are provided with every convenience. Behind the lounging room is a broad, long gallery, which accommodates 500 observers. From it one has a full view of the club’s 15-mile course in the Mississippi Sound. The 3rd floor (when finished) will be devoted to billiard rooms and the 4th story, reached by a winding stair, is the observation tower. From it the Judges with the aid of glasses have a full sweep of the Sound and can easily follow the movements of the yachts.
BYC’s promise was short lived. Because club stock had “largely fallen into the hands of persons who did not pay dues or did not participate in the work for which the club was organized,” The Daily Herald reported on July 15, 1904, stockholders representing 82 of the 113 shares of stock in the club voted to disband and cancel the club’s charter on the 30th of the month. A committee composed of President I. Heidenheim, E.R. Bragg, J.B. Lemon and W.J. Grant was appointed and instructed to sell the assets of the club as soon as they could do so for enough to pay the club debts. The Daily Herald added: “Another Yacht and Social Club will be organized which will be composed largely of members of the old club.” Leased on the property on which the building stood had 22 years to run, it was noted, and “the clubhouse is an ideal place for the headquarters of such a club as is contemplated.”
On August 13, 1904, 50 members of the new club met in the old yacht club rooms and decided to push for “75 or 80” before going into permanent organization. Reelected a month later were Heidenheim, president, Martin Hass, vice president, and Ed Suter, secretary. Others elected were W.H. Buck, treasurer, E. Desporte, Commodore, V.J. Tucci, vice-commodore, E. Desporte, official measurer, and Dr. E.R. Bragg, fleet surgeon.
Membership dues were set a 50 cents per month.
The doings, or undoing, of the BYC were confusing to Historian Murfee, who gleaned much of her information from Jacinto Baltar, author of a history of the Southern Gulf Coast Yachting Association. When was the Biloxi Yacht Club chartered by the state of Mississippi? She asked in her column, with the plea, “More research needed!”
“So, if there is to be a centennial celebration in the future, and I certainly hope there will be, an official date will have to be determined by a committee set up for that purpose,” she concluded.
At last, there were serene years ahead for BYC. But, alas, it was only the calm before the storm. And, what a storm! The eye of a hurricane passed over the club in 1915, leaving only splintered pilings and a reminder of the once-lavish yachting showplace. Again, in July 1916, a hurricane brushed the club, but the new edifice, built just east of the old clubhouse with similar lines, stood tall. Saved, for the most part, was BYC’s $3,500 clubhouse investment! “The only loss,” Quave reported, “was loose lumber and tools amounting to $250.”
A charter member of the Southern Gulf Coast Yachting Association on April 28, 1901, along with Bay Waveland, Mobile, Southern, and Pass Christian, Biloxi Yacht Club found itself cast in that role again in 1920. As competition increased first among neighboring and then more distant clubs, pressure built to organize for the purpose of scheduling regattas the breadth of the Gulf Coast. And, so in 1920 the Gulf Yachting Association was born. It also was proposed that a boat be designed and adopted by each club for club competition in order for all to compete evenly. A 21-foot gaff-rigged keel sloop was the result, designed by Commodore J. Rathbone deBuys of Southern Yacht Club and to be know as a “Fish Boat.” The popular sloop remained the official competitive boat of the GYA until 1967 when high maintenance and replacement costs nudged member clubs into retiring the “Fish Class” in favor of a fiberglass equivalent. Eventually, after much heated debate between Fish Class sentimentalists and those proffering what they claimed was a more practical solution, the Flying Scot was accepted as the new GYA standard bearer.
Until the World War II years, BYC enjoyed an enviable record as a social and competitive club. Then, the cold realization of the times moved in. For four years the club was inactive as Keesler Air Force Base made use of the facilities in the operation of their rescue boats. At that time, Keesler was training bomber pilots, and the open Gulf waters was their firing range. As Quave noted in his history, occasionally a plane would “ditch,” triggering a scramble of rescue craft in search of survivors.
Again, in 1947 BYC dared to stand against a hurricane, packing 97-mile-an-hour winds and tides 12 to 15 feet above normal. And, stand tall again she did, suffering substantial but recoverable damage primarily to her docks. Another hurricane, Betsy, battered the Coast in 1951 and again BYC stood tall.
It wasn’t until 1969, however that Biloxians would fully appreciate a hurricane. That was the year the BYC elected to renovate the now aging facility. The story could not be told more eloquently that by Historian Murfee in her Lee Sheet column:
This is the picture of the Biloxi Yacht Club that was indelibly etched in the minds of most of the members of the old yacht club — this building, indestructible, standing tall and undaunted after the hurricane of 1947, surrounded on all sides by the rubble of buildings that once were neighbors. It had stood the test of time, having been rebuilt after the storm of 1915 and having weathered all that Nature had flung her way since that time.
It is small wonder that a group of energetic members were continuing their work remodeling the upper floor of the clubhouse for a gala opening that would feature and art exhibit and a fashion show in a large room suitable for meetings and other events while a storm, named Camille, was flirting along a path to the coast but until the last minute seemed to be headed for Panama City, Florida, that fateful day in August, 1969.
While the men were working upstairs installing new light fixtures in this newly remodeled area with Commodore Jay Lopez, a group of women, among them the Commodore’s wife, Anne, Marge Munro, Audrey Murphy and several juniors were feverishly packing up treasured pictures and silver trophies (sixteen cartons of them) and assisted by Keith Fountain, hauling them off to Anne’s studio on Father Ryan Avenue.
Meanwhile, the fish class boats were taken to George and Carroll Booth’s beachfront home and stored in their backyard, filled with water, where unbelievably, they survived without a scratch. The bigger boats were taken to a safe harbor upstream.
A different picture awaited the members on that grim morning after. Nothing left this time but the pilings. It was hard to believe that scarcely a trace was left of that grand old lady. Ann and Jay Lopez found one plank (recognizable because of its old familiar green color) amid the piles of debris and it was from that relic that Jay constructed the frames for Anne’s portraits of Captain and Mrs. Grady that we see in the lobby.
The old familiar landmark was now gone forever. But the Biloxi Yacht Club would come back to life.
In a following column Historian Murfee concludes Hurricane Camille’s disastrous visit.
It is never easy to pick up the pieces and start all over — and it certainly was not easy for the Commodore, Jay Lopez, and his flag officers, Owen Munro, and Jerry Quave, after Camille struck what many people thought was a fatal blow to the Biloxi Yacht Club.
However, the demise of the club was never one of the options any one of them considered. Within days plans were made to acquire a trailer — not a house trailer, but a trailer that had been used for an office. The found one from a dealer on Pass Road and as soon as power was restored and the debris cleared from the main thoroughfares it was located north of the seawall within walking distance of the pilings of the old BYC clubhouse.
However, there was no longer a pier standing. So some of the members themselves built a two-foot wide pier to the existing pilings and in a very short time all the Flying Scots were moored at the old familiar site, getting ready for the ’69 Liptons. As a matter-of-fact, the Biloxi Yacht Club was the only club from the coast that showed up in New Orleans with its own boat.
The general membership meeting that year was held on the seawall and Owen Munro was elected Commodore. He took office in January, 1970, and Marge Munro became “Mamador.” She worked tirelessly, that year and the next, to refurbish the trailer and make it home for the dwindling membership. She made sandwiches at home and sold them at the “clubhouse” and enriched the club’s treasury.
All the while the club stalwarts were considering their options, looking into all possibilities, and in time the El Capitan Lounge, swimming pool and marina of the Trade Winds Hotel became available. With some trepidation and much discussion, pro and con, the Biloxi Yacht Club, with an SBA 3% loan of $239,000 had a new home.
This was 1972 and after two years, Owen Munro had passed the gavel to Jerry Quave who served the club as Commodore for the next two very difficult years. But thanks to the untiring work of these members and others with unwavering faith a new Biloxi Yacht Club came into being.
One final note: The refurbishing of the old yacht club in the summer of 1969 was financed by a $20,000 bond issue, with the bonds being sought by some of the members. It was to be paid off periodically by drawing names until all bonds had been paid off. Due to prolonged litigation with the City of Biloxi over rebuilding at the original site of the club, the City and membership finally came to an agreement that the City would pay off the existing bonds with interest and the club released any claim to the site in question.
With the loss of the site the BYC came the consolation that at least no bondholder ever lost a cent invested in the club!
No chronicle of the Biloxi Yacht Club would be complete without mention of — no, extolling — Captain John Grady and his chief mate, Ida Grady, who managed the club for more that 40 years. For those who knew them, they were one of a kind — actors from the silent movie era when a suggestion of a frown, a raised eyebrow, a slight twist of the mouth, a darting movement of the arm, a nod, a deadly silence and an explosion of unrefined laughter said more that a thousand words. You knew where you stood with the Grady’s, and then you didn’t. So, they were impelling, demanding, intriguing — and certainly always interesting.
It is said that in the depression years Capt. Grady saved the yacht club from a second dissolution by offering to maintain the premises, and Fish Class boats, if allowed to pocket whatever the club took in in the way of boat rentals, bar sales and sailing instruction fees. Who could complain when the clubhouse was kept in mint condition, the Fish Class boats in championship readiness — and membership dues were $36 a year! The problem was when Capt. Grady and Ida decided they had had enough of whatever was going on at the club, the was it, and before you knew it rockers were being hung on doors for security, there was a sudden obvious tidying up of the clubhouse — and if that were not hint enough, you were asked to leave.
They lived on Water Street, but BYC members will tell you their love was the old clubhouse where they often bedded down on the pool table and couches shotgun in had, to head off a break-in. And, the often did, to the consternation and often physical detriment of the intruder.
As Mary Elizabeth Murfee concluded, “Times pass, memories fade, but the Grady’s, both of them, were an integral part of a past era that will not come again but that lives on as manifested by the place of honor their portraits, lovingly painted by our own Anne Lopez, hold in the lounge area of a new Biloxi Yacht Club.”
In its colorful 100-odd year history BYC has had to make many decisions. None, however, caught the community more by surprise that the action taken by the board the year of Franklin Roosevelt’s visit. In their pictorial history of “Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Colleen and Joe Scholtes report that after due deliberations the board, “banned the turkey trot and other newfangled dances in favor of the two-step and waltz.”
Part II Sailing
Organizing, reorganizing, building and rebuilding spacious club house facilities was a lot easier than establishing themselves as masters of the fine art of competitive sailing in the GYA the Biloxians were to discover. Perhaps that was because of their fiercely independent nature. “Biloxi fishermen neither know nor care anything about rules,” Gerald Taylor White, famous for his America’s Cup coverage, wrote in the 1926 The Rudder. “If a boat is in your way, you sail over her or through her at your own discretion.” However, he added quickly, “For seamanship and snappy sail handling, we enter the Biloxi fishermen for world honors.”
And, so it was for 17 years BYC participated in what must have seemed an exercise in futility. Through 1936, seven clubs had figured in the win column, Pensacola, captor of the inaugural in 1920, sailing off with six Sir Thomas Jr. Lipton Interclub Challenge Series Victories. Other champions were Sarasota in 1930, ’31 and ’32, Eastern Shore, ’21, Southern Yacht Club, ’25, Mobile, ’28, and Buccaneer, ’34. In 1922 and again in ’27, Southern and Pensacola tied, and Eastern Shore and St. Petersburg wound up all even in 1926.
BYC was still shaking off the effects of the depression years as 1937 dawned. However, a determined few among the 135 members resolved to push ahead with the club’s most ambitious sailing program to date, principal among them Dan Keller, race committee chairman. He organized a BYC Skipperette Class that in no time at all grew to 24 and was represented over the season in 45 regattas. Mrs. W.L. Parks (Mercedes) served as chairman assisted by Mrs. B.B. O’Mara (Lydia), vice-chairman, and Mrs. W.P. Kennedy (Beatrice), treasurer. And, BYC was on a roll.
That year competition also was heightened among the Experts. They welcomed a new club class into action, the Juniors, organized in 1936 and including a strappling 12-year-old with a passion for sailing by the name of Walter Seymour, who was to become one of the most respected figures and sailors in the Gulf. Biloxi Yacht Club was never better prepared as it headed for Pensacola, host to the 37th Lipton Classic.
Bob Brodie won his race, E.C. Tonsmiere, Jr., held on for a fifth and E. “Eddie” Moore earned a third. When Big Alf Dantzler crossed the finish line in fourth place, Biloxi was assured of its first Lipton Cup.
Although 14 years were to elapse before the club would experience again “the absolute euphoria with the halls of BYC,” according to Flora K. Shieb in her “History of the Southern Yacht Club.” Then, the Biloxians dominated as no club had done before, cruising to Lipton Cup victories in 1952, ’53, ’54, and ’55. They won again in 1958, ’61, ’66 and, finally in ’67.
BYC’s Junior Program, meanwhile enjoyed only brief period in the sun, but it was a scorcher. After Southern’s victories in the first two Junior Lipton Interclub Challenge Regattas, and a World War II – imposed four-year Series lapse, BYC’s youngsters stormed back to capture the Lipton Cup in 1947, ’48 and ’49.
BYC’s most notable team sailing achievement, it could be argued, came in an event to encourage the sport among the fairer sex. In 1938, Commodore Bernie Knost of Pass Christian Yacht Club offered an elaborate trophy to the winner of an all-girl three-race interclub series hosted by his organization. The event was an immediate hit and has remained a highlight among Gulf sailing activities. With its large number of Skipperettes to draw from, most notable Joyce Fountain Wiltz, Janet Ferson Green, Beatrice Kennedy and Emily Joullian Dale, BYC over the years has compiled the second best record, winning the Knows nine times. Only Pass, with 11 victories, has done better. In addition to her Knost heroics, Joyce in 1949 became the first girl in the history of BYC to earn a skipper’s position on the club’s Lipton team.
Off the race course, BYC also has an impressive record. Seven of its members have held the lofty position of Gulf Yachting Association Commodore — Dr. Eldon Bolton, Wallace Chapman, Jerry J. Ellis, Byrd Enochs, J.J. Kennedy, J.P. Moore and Walter Seymour.
In a niche in Seymour’s home there stands a modest trophy that represents what competitive sailing is all about, the teamwork between skipper and crew, the intense concentration, the physical demands made by craft, water and wind. It is dated 1961. That year Seymour began an Odyssey no one believed possible.
With his young daughter, Jan, and a skinny kid named Glen Ellis as crew, Seymour won a club elimination series race, then two in a row, then three, four, five, six. By now the porch of the club was filled with the curious who wondered how long Seymour could lick the odds. Seven in a row, then eight, nine, ten — and, finally, eleven. There the string was broken.
At the annual awards that year, Seymour had a surprise for his young crew, and the crowd. Summoning Jan and Glen to the front, he handed each a trophy and read the inscription:
“To Jan, Daddy’s Lucky Crew. 1961”
“To Glen, Walter’s Lucky Crew. 1961”
Later that winter Seymour closed out perhaps BYC’s most memorable individual feat by winning the prestigious “Race of Champions,” matching the top skippers of GYA member clubs, sponsored by the New Orleans Mid-Winter Sports Association. Only one other BYC sailor has scored in this winter feature, Jimmy Holland, who posted back-to-back victories in the late 1950s.
–Compiled from periodicals, personal records and recollections by Clark D. Shaughnessy, Jr., 1988