Captain John Mavar was a fisherman, boat owner and shipbuilder who had a modest beginning but achieved stunning success. Mavar was born in Austria-Hungary in 1880, this nation would later be known as Yugoslavia and today is Croatia. John received the equivalent of a fourth grade education and spent most of his early life developing trade skills. In 1898, at age nineteen, Mavar immigrated to the United States and began work as a crewman on various commercial fishing schooners. Within time, Mavar became a captain and later owned his own schooner. John Mavar settled in Biloxi and started a family. He married Olivia Skrmetta in 1906 and together they had five children; John Mavar Jr., Antonia Mavar Talijancich, Margaret Rita Mavar Lawrence, Samuel Joseph Mavar, and Nicholas A. Mavar. It was Olivia’s thriftiness that allowed John to purchases his first vessel.
In 1926, he opened a small business between Maple and Oak Street in Biloxi in which he bought fish from local fishermen and sold it to local restaurants and hotels. Mavar’s four sons completed their education and came to work with their father in the seafood industry. Together, the family began buying shrimp and oysters from local fishing vessels. Mavar shipped their products throughout the country, as far away as New York City. The products were often transported by railway express iced in barrels. This was the start of Mavar Shrimp & Oyster Co. By the 1930s, Mavar opened a small canning plant to produce canned shrimp and canned oysters. This canning operation rose to distinction with these goods shipped throughout the country as well. During this same time, Mavar also began building wooden commercial fishing vessels. By the late 1960’s, he had accumulated a fleet of forty three boats. Within the next decade, the company began building steel fishing ships for their own use. This secondary business became known as Mavar Boat Company Inc. In 1958, Mavar’s company found a way to use the “trash fish” caught during the shrimping process. They manufactured canned cat food under the Kozy Kitten label. As sales of this product grew, the company began to manufacture dry cat food under the same label. Through the sale of these products, Mavar Shrimp & Oyster Company grew exponentially. At its peak, the company employed over three hundred workers. By 1988, the H.J. Heinz Company purchased the entire operation. During his lifetime, John Mavar was involved in several different community organizations. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Biloxi Elks Club, and a parishioner of the Nativity BVM Parish. In 1959, John Mavar was honored with the title of Shrimp King in the annual Blessing of the Fleet. John Mavar, Sr. led a robust and successful life until his passing on August 13, 1960. In his lifetime, Mavar saw the birth, growth and rich success of a company he built from the ground up. This one man was able to immigrate from Europe and begin a profession based on his skills and passions. To this end, Mavar’s name became known throughout the country, synonymous with seafood production and professional quality. The story of John Mavar, Sr. is the story of the American Dream itself, played out in early 20th century, Biloxi, Mississippi.