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CHARLIE PASSIEU ENTERED FOLKSTON AUTO BUSINESS IN 1923

By Jack R. Mays, Historian, Charlton County, Ga.

Charlton County Herald

February 11, 1987

It was a brilliant and beautiful summer morning. The sun had risen just above the massive oak trees on the courthouse lawn at the east end of Main Street and was shining down on the town’s nearly deserted business district. It was June 6, 1944.

Two men, dressed in overalls, stood outside Stapleton’s drugstore. They assumed for a moment that Charlie Passieu had some sort of bad trouble as he rushed past them and through the front doors of Stapleton’s Rexall drugstore. Only the smile on Passieu’s face disputed the assumption.

“We’ve landed at Normandy – we’ve landed at Normandy” the automobile dealer shouted, his voice trembling with excitement. Inside the drugstore, E.B. Stapleton and his pharmacist-son Pearce, knew what Passieu was referring to. Allied invasion troops under General Dwight Eisenhower had landed on the coast of the Normandy peninsula in France. It was the turning point of World War Two for the nation and her allies. The world had been expecting the announcement for days. Passieu’s ever-present necktie, carelessly tied, gave evidence of how hurriedly he had dressed that morning in his rush to get to town with the news.

Charles Joseph Passieu was his full name but he became known simply as Charlie Passieu to his multitude of friends. The Mayor of Folkston, Passieu owned the Chevrolet agency next door to the drugstore and had heard the invasion bulletin on his radio before leaving home. He wanted to share the historical moment with his friends the Stapletons. It was in the club-like atmosphere of the small drugstore that the town’s businessmen gathered each day to talk over the progress of the war, a custom practiced since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, nearly three years earlier.

Passieu’s son, Louie, a flight officer on a giant B-29 Superfortress bomber stationed on Tinian in the Pacific, and a source of great pride and concern for the 54 year old car dealer, was another reason Passieu monitored the hourly newscasts. The other storekeepers on Main Street knew that Passieu kept abreast of the latest war news and counted on frequent briefings from him in the drugstore.

Charlie Passieu (pronounced as in cashew) was one of the town’s inner-circle of businessmen. He had been a fixture on Main Street since 1923, when he was only 33 years old. Before his death on November 14, 1968, he would hold the office of mayor of Folkston longer than anyone else in the town’s history. The name Passieu came to mean integrity and success to the people of Folkston.

1923 was a year of change for Folkston. Dr. Albert Fleming had a brief fling at running a restaurant when he bought out Wright’s Restaurant and someone intentionally burned down the Roddenberry school house. The town’s high school had just three graduates that year: Marion Pearce, Richard Stroup and Brantley Roddenberry, and the O.K. Theatre on Billy’s Island in the Okefenokee was doing big business at the box office.

On June 8, 1923 Passieu bought half interest in Folkston’s Ford automobile dealership from L.E. Mallard, also the county’s school superintendent, and the business was renamed Mallard-Passieu Motor Company, but the partnership was to be short-lived.

In February, 1924, Mallard, a natural “horse-trader”, took a mule in trade for part payment of a new Ford. Passieu, one who never lost sight of the value of a dollar, was incensed when he learned of Mallard’s trade.

He and Mallard confronted each other over the deal. Passieu made his partner a buy-or-sell proposition and Mallard sold. Passieu paid him $4,000 for his remaining interest and changed the company’s name to Passieu Motor Company.

Passieu’s craving to be in business for himself dated well beyond the time he bought into Mallard’s business in 1923. In 1910, when only 20 years old, in Cecil, Pennsylvania, Charlie Passieu balked at the prospects of working in the area’s coal mines, as his father had done. He talked his brother, Fernand, and his father into moving with him to the rapidly developing south, settling in Hilliard, Florida.

Passieu went to work in a Hilliard grocery store for a Jewish merchant samed Sam Rosenblum. He worked long and hard, saving every dime he could get his hands on. Money was scarce in the Passieu household in Pennsylvania where Charlie Passiey grew up and he learned its value early in life. Soon the frugal Passieu had saved a hundred dollars and the burning to begin his own business intensified.

He told Rosenblum that he had saved a hundred dollars and wanted now to open his own grocery store in Hilliard, and would like to buy groceries for the Passieu store from him. Passieu wanted to buy one of each item on Rosenblum’s shelves. Rosenblum smiled, knowing Passieu’s hundred dollars wouldn’t pay for one of each item. Nevertheless he gathered up one of each item in the store and laid them on the counter for Passieu. The bill came to over $300. Rosenblum took Passieu’s hundred dollars and charged the balance until Passieu could sell the goods in his own store. In a few months Rosenblum had received all money owed by Passieu.

Passieu’s grocery business grew and prospered. In 1915 he married Cecil W. Green of Hilliard. She was 19 years old and the granddaughter of Joseph S. Mizell, an early resident of Traders Hill and state representative from Charlton County in 1902 until 1904, and in 1910 a member of the Folkston city council.

About 1917, Passieu became fascinated by the just-beginning automobile business. He bought a minor interest in a Ford dealership in Hilliard owned by Herbert Stokes. From that time forward, Passieu’s economic life centered around the automobile.

Two children were born to Charlie and Cecil Green Passieu in Hilliard: Louie in 1917 and Elizabeth in 1921. The second daughter, Jo Ann was born in Folkston in 1932.

Tragedy struck the Passieu home in Folkston in late November, 1933. Thirty-six year old Cecil Passieu developed blood poisoning after picking a small pimple on her face. The infection spread rapidly. Although she was rushed to a Jacksonville hospital, she died just days later, Novermber 29, 1933. Leaving as survivors were her husband, Charlie, the son Louie, 16, Elizabeth, 12 and Jo Ann, less than a year old.

Passieu married Janie Lou Calhoun of Waycross in 1935. She died on March 3, 1950 at age 47. In 1954 he married Mildred Lott of Folkston. She too died at age 47 on November 29, 1965. There were no children born of the last two marriages. All three wives were active members of the Order of the Eastern Star. Passieu was active in Masonic affairs and his son Louie, then Worshipful Master, bestowed the fifty-year membership pin on his father in ceremonies in the Folkston lodge.

In 1933 Passieu gave up the Folkston Ford agency, turning to Chevrolet automobiles after selling Fords for seventeen years. He developed the Passieu Chevrolet Company into one of south Georgia and north Florida’s leading automobile dealerships.

Passieu’s first Chevrolet showroom was the Main Street building, but in the mid-50s the company’s business increased to the point that Passieu built a modern, spacious building near the Folkston Baptist Church to accommodate his growing list of customers.

Louie, Elizabeth and Jo Ann joined their father in the business, as did L.D. Majors, who had associated with Passieu after leaving Alabama in 1938. Majors and Passieu’s daughter Elizabeth were married on June16, 1940.

Passieu opened his Chevrolet agency in the middle of the nation’s ghastly economic depression. Only tight-fisted management and good business practices allowed the business to survive and actually grow, while many businesses were failing and closing their doors.

Charlie Passieu and his family became involved in every worthwhile cause for the community. He served on the city council and as mayor until voluntarily stepping down from politics in 1965. When the town’s 1931 charter was redrawn, Charlie Passieu’s name was written into the legislation creating the new document. His son Louie served several terms as the town’s mayor in the early 70’s. He too, led the adoption of a new City Charter for Folkston during his administration.

On February 23, 1937, Passieu opened up the Ritz Theatre in a building adjoining his Chevrolet agency on Main Street with the Jack Benny movie, Big Broadcast of 1937. The Ritz operated until September 1948; the last fifteen months with competition from Folkston’s second movie house, The Topper Theatre.

Passieu’s automobile business prospered and in 1962 the corporation created two new Folkston businesses, Folkston Oil and Parts, Inc. a Phillips 66 petroleum agency and automobile parts company, and Folkston Gas Company, a propane gas business, and provided capital to begin a Chevrolet dealership in P0unta Gorda, Florida.

L.D. Majors and his wife, Elizabeth later bought the petroleum and parts company; Louie purchased the propane gas business and the youngest daughter Jo Ann who had married Robert Helphenstine, moved to Punta Gorda where she and her husband opened Palm Chevrolet Company. All of the businesses proved highly successful.

In June 1968 Charlie Passieu sold his Chevrolet dealership to Kelly Walker of Hilliard and retired from the automobile business after fifty years. The business was good to the hard-working Passieu whose superior management ability guided the business through good times and bad for a half century. Now it was time to enjoy the remainder of his years. He was 78.

Four months later, November 14, 1968. Charles Joseph Passieu, died suddenly at his home on Passieu Circle in Folkston of an apparent heart attack. An active Baptist, Passieu’s funeral services were held in the Folkston Baptist Church. He was buried in the town’s Pineview Cemetery alongside the three wives who preceded him in death. Folkston had lost one of its outstanding pioneer business leaders.

In 45 years of running a business in Folkston, Charlie Passieu set the course for success and honest dealing. Many men who became prosperous in the business community of Folkston learned their lesson well while working for the congenial native of Pennsylvania who chose to leave the coal fields and come south in 1910 seeking a better way of life.

From 1923 until his death in 1968 Charlie Passieu engraved his name deeply into the county’s economic, social and political life. He and his family added much to the culture and character of the city and county, writing the Passieu name into its history and creating a legacy to challenge future generations.

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Charlton  County Archives