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Jeff Mahl presents program on the Great Race of 1908

By Staff | Feb 3, 2015

Jeff Mahl portraying his great-grandfather George Schuster. ED FRANKS

Pine Island resident Jeff Mahl, great-grandson of the winner of the Great Race of 1908, presented George Schuster’s story to a full house at the Pine Island Methodist Church Saturday afternoon. The event was presented by the Ladies of the Elks to benefit the Pine Island Elementary School’s Acquisition for Education Program.

About a dozen antique cars began arriving before the event began. They lined up along the edge of the parking lot. Chevrolets, Plymouths, Fords and even custom cars glimmered in the sun.

“I’m really impressed with the turnout,” Mahl said. “There are probably more than 200 people here today — but this is Pine Island after all.”

George Schuster, Mahl’s great-grandfather, was “recruited” by his employer, the ER Thomas Automobile Company, to participate in the Great Race of 1908. The race was sponsored by the New York Times and a Paris newspaper and began in New York Feb. 12, 1908. Mahl grew up listening to Schuster relate the adventure.

“I was very fortunate and grew up in a small town in western New York,” Mahl said. “And I suppose it’s about as close to Mayberry as you can get. I was very fortunate that most of my family was there, including my grandfather and great-grandfather. I remember as a child my great-grandfather would tell these stories and I would say, ‘Oh gosh, great-gramps is telling those stories about the race again.'”

The antique car show at the Jeff Mahl presentation. ED FRANKS

“Then when I was about 14, I had an English assignment and decided to do it about this New York to Paris race my great-grandfather was always talking about,” he continued. “That’s when it dawned on me that this was an important historical event and from that point on I really started to pay attention. Thankfully great-grandfather lived to the age of 99 and we would sit on this glider on his front porch and he would tell me these stories over and over.”

Then Mahl put on a long mechanics overcoat and “transformed” into his great-grandfather. With the house lights dimmed, seated in a chair beside a floor lamp, Schuster began his story.

“It was Feb.11th, 1908. I was in Providence Rhode Island as chief mechanic for the ER Thomas Motor Company which built fine automobiles in Buffalo, New York.

“When I got back to my hotel there was a phone call waiting for me and it was Morris back at the factory in Buffalo. He says, ‘George, ER has decided to enter an automobile in the New York to Paris race.’ I had heard about this race before and Henry Ford had flatly refused to enter the race as did Ransom Olds. You see in 1908 no automobile has even driven across the United States in the winter time. In 1908 snowplows hadn’t been invented. Antifreeze hadn’t been invented… In the entire United States there were only 110 miles of paved roads.

“I told Morris I had a suitcase full of dirty laundry and I was coming down with a cold but I would be in New York the next morning to begin the race around the world. The next call I made was to my wife Rose back in Buffalo with my son George Jr. I when she answered the phone I said, ‘Dear, I’m not going to be home this weekend.’ And she said, ‘Oh, What’s happening?’ ‘Well, the company wants me to be in a race and we’re going to go from New York City Times Square to the Eiffel Tower.’ There was dead silence on the phone and then she said to me simply, ‘George, I will pray for you.'”

For the next 90 minutes Mahl enthralled the capacity crowd with his great-grandfather’s experience crossing three continents and over 22,000 miles in 169 days to win the race July 30, 1908, in the American Thomas Flyer. The feat has never been equaled and Schuster and the USA still hold the world record 104 years later.

Many people in the audience had heard Mahl’s presentation two years ago.

“I’ve seen this presentation by Jeff five times before and it’s been great every time,” Sonny Koutsoutsis said. “I hope to hear him many more times.”

Proceeds from the event will be presented to Pine Island Elementary School in a few weeks.