The FRIBERG-SCHAFFNER Family: Early Entrepeneurs
Some of us growing up heard stories of the eponymous Louie’s Pier which had assumed a mythical status only marked by weather-worn pilings protruding out of the bay’s low tide like matchsticks alongside the Lighthouse. Since the story heard by the curious young among us was that the pier had burned down, the matchstick metaphor may work, but others heard that it was swept away in a nameless hurricane. Among young surf casters the location was long identified with good fishing and, although the offshore topography may be the actual reason, the identifying landmark remained Louie’s Pier even when it remained only a dim memory. Such is the stuff of legends. Of course, some residents still among us actually remember the real Louie’s Pier although Louie, himself, by now may be shrouded in mystery. And does anyone remember that the location was informally called Norwegian Point after an unnamed early inhabitant? To get at the story of Louie’s Pier, though, we have to first peel back some layers of community history to an earlier enterprise and a family deeply rooted in the community’s origins. What makes the social history especially interesting is that descendants of the original family are still among us, living in the original home which was relocated to what is now 12th Avenue after we lost East Rockaway Point in or about 1960. More recently, they have left their mark on a dedicated bench looking out over the shore from which the eponymous pier extendeds where walkers can rest as they scan the tides washing around the Lighthouse, see sails passing further out on the bay, and enjoy matchless sunsets.
The Breezy Point Historical Society has a trove of documents on the family’s history and photos of the Friberg Hotel, this history’s opening chapter, dating back to the early years of the last century. We have also been acquiring valuable oral histories from family members who are still among us. The Hotel was just eastward of and overlapping with the present location of the Colony Theater, and there is a family memory that Henny’s and the entry foyer to the old Colony Theater, now both also gone, had incorporated the Hotel’s porch. Nils and Sophie Friberg, recent Scandinavian immigrants, he Swedish and she Norwegian, in 1904 purchased the Fisherman and Gunners Inn, expanded it into the year-round Friberg Hotel on the spit of land that became Rockaway Point and was leased from the Southern Pacific Railroad (that the subject of another history), then built a dock for access from across the bay. The Fribergs took up residence, seemingly the Point’s first winter family, in 1905 with their young children Bessie, Nellie, Edith and, arriving in 1907, Nils Jr. Bessie recalled in a 1964 Pointer article that the nearest road was in Belle Harbor (later extended in increments along the ocean to where the firehouse outside Riis Park is now located, then as far as the gravel road to Ignatz’s where the Silver Gull now sits), Neponsit not have been founded yet. Transportation to Rockaway, including to school for the growing children, was by horse and carriage. Winter travel could be especially harsh. Bessie described the Point as barren and desolate. The landscape was speckled with only dunes, brush and seagrass, but the Fribergs had found a home. They also purchased four bungalows on what later became East Market Street, and later three more at 30 and 53 Bedford Avenue and on Highland Place. A fellow Scandinavian, Henry Seaman, built another structure that later was purchased by Philip Howard Reid and became the venue of the Rockaway Point Yacht Club.
The Friberg Hotel serviced local residents of the early Rockaway Point colony as well as patrons who would arrive by private boat and ferries during the summer months. The Hotel rented out tents seasonally, had a dance hall, full-service kitchen and a dining room, and rooms were let for overnight guests. Family members recall that business prospered and that despite its remote location people from the city attended events where formal dress was not uncommon, but that any lingering formality doubtless was disrupted by the resident parrot and monkey. Bessie, then about eighteen years of age, was married at the Hotel to a codfish vendor from Ridgewood, Louis Shaffner – this name will soon reappear in our history – on November 30, 1916, in Rockaway Point’s first wedding, attended by many who had become regular patrons as well as maritime enthusiasts, evidencing the growing status of Friberg’s Hotel. Bessie related in the 1964 article that the dance hall was converted into a temporary chapel, the Congregationalist minister was transported by horse and carriage from Rockaway Beach, and family memories related that the celebrations extended over three days – likely after the minister’s leave-taking.
A short segue here may be interesting. Although some history relates that Louis’ familiarity with Bessie arose from the family’s business – the restaurant purchased his catch of the day – another memory, supported by a November 26, 1916, article in The Brooklyn Citizen and related in the Wedding Announcement in its December 2, 2016 edition, tells a more romantic story. Louis and a companion had been caught in a bad tide on the Rockaway shoals during rough weather when waves soaked the battery and the boat’s engine failed, putting the floundering boat, trapped among the shoals, crosswise to the waves breaking over the gunwales. Bessie, hurrying back to the Point to escape the storm, saw the distressed mariners, changed course through the shoals and braved the breakers to throw them a tow line and haul the boat through the shoals to the safety of the Hotel. The rest, as they say, was history. After the following year’s wedding, the young couple soon moved into 523 Bayside, originally just east of the Hotel (later moved to 12th Avenue), which had been built by Louie (the more formal first name thereafter abandoned) and a friend, Charles Thompson. Sophie Schaffner, a third generation Pointer, arrived not long thereafter via Bessie’s ferry ride to Sheepshead Bay and a trolley to Greenpoint for the birth, then back to Friberg’s Hotel on the newly christened “Bessie F.” These were rugged people.
In 1913, title to the land beneath Rockaway Point, inclusive of the Friberg Hotel and its dock and the Friberg bungalows, had been acquired by the Rockaway Point Company, Inc. When the lease terms expired, the leases were not renewed. The Hotel was demolished except for its front porch, which became the ice cream parlor, known to later generations as Henny’s, for what later became the Colony Theater. This, though, brings us to another business by another generation. The original Louie’s pier was a fishing pier in Rockaway Point, thrice destroyed by hurricanes and twice rebuilt. Rather than rebuilding after the infamous hurricane of 1938, the Schaffners looked west to the two piers that had been built for the trestle which was used to offload from barges onto a train the boulders for the construction of the jetty. With the jetty finished, the piers became available for leasing, which the Shaffners took up. The westernmost pier had a small house and a storage building onto which Louie, Charlie Thompson and others moved ice boxes and other equipment that had survived the storm from the badly damaged Louie’s pier in Rockaway Point. The Shaffners set up shop on the pier and, although still owning the Bayside house, essentially moved in for the summer. There was cold running water, and the ice boxes were chilled with blocks of ice purchased as needed, but at first no electrical service. A kerosine oil lamp and stove served for light and cooking (propane was added in the 1950s), and an oil lamp was kept lit overnight to warn off passing shipping (which failed to pierce the fog one night when boat and pier came into dramatic contact with one another).
A wonderful essay of memories living on her grandparent’s pier by Mary Brady is now in our archives along with remembrances from her brothers, John and David Donlon, but a summary can be provided here. The extended Schaffner family, now including Sophie’s husband Scotty Donlon and their children, lived out of the three-room cabin on the pier during summers. At that time, the vicinity of the pier essentially was the “point” of land from where the rock jetty extended into what originally was open ocean. During the war years the Lighthouse was added. Mary recalled being able to see from their nautical retreat all the shipping passing through the Lower Bay. Even today, the view is unparalleled as one stands by the Lighthouse or sits afloat just offshore. The fee for customers using the pier was 35 cents. Soda, chips and candy were available for sale. The children gathered clams and netted spearing which they sold as bait along with hooks and the lead sinkers, which some of us also remember from our own youths fishing from the Breezy and Rockaway Point piers, now, also, sadly gone. Fluke, flounder, porgies and snappers were the usual catch and fresh fish often served as the family’s dinner. The Schaffners had seven rowboats that could be rented for $2.50 per day, but the children and their friends enjoyed free use. Evenings were often spent around a campfire of dried driftwood where kids and marshmallows proliferated.
Childhood, of course, ends, and its memories trail off. Louie’s Pier, though, and the family’s occupation, also came to an end when, yet again, in 1957, the lease was not renewed. The family still had their shoreside bungalow, though. Now in their seventh generation, the family is still here, as is the memorial bench just landward of the dune overlooking the now-empty beach by the lighthouse. As for those old stories bandied about by children about the ghost pier? We can now state as historical fact that after the pier was abandoned, fire struck, and then a hurricane, sending the cabin and decking to a watery grave. However, hopefully this year’s entry into the BPHS Hall of Fame will acquaint a younger generation with what once were community landmarks and the family associated with them.