his article was published in the MAY-JUNE 2013 issue of PANAMA CITY LIVING MAGAZINE Volume 8 ~ Issue 3
THEODORE TOLLOFSEN: GRAND LAGOON’S SOLITARY MAN
“Don’t know that I will but until I can find one, a girl who’ll stay and won’t play games behind me.
I’ll be what I am: a solitary man, SOLITARY MAN.”
One day in 1954, Claude Willoughby, hired in ’49 as the first manager of St. Andrews State Park, stopped by a ramshackle squatter’s cabin built beside the shimmering blue green waters of Grand Lagoon to check on the condition of the tenant and found the old man unconscious and sprawled out on the floor. Later that same day, the state park’s most legendary resident passed away at a local Panama City hospital; so ended the strange intriguing nautical life of Bay County’s Nordic version of Robinson Crusoe, Theodore Tollofsen.
By ’54, Theodore, better known as Teddy, had lived the primitive solitary life of a castaway for at least 25 years on a spit of sand that is today occupied by one of the most popular state parks in Florida, attracting almost a million visitors each year. It certainly wasn’t so crowded when Teddy first showed up, shipwrecked on Grand Lagoon after a 1929 hurricane. Eighty four years ago, there were no jetties, no full service marinas, no Thomas Drive, no close neighbors and although Teddy’s part of Grand Lagoon was only four miles across the bay south of St. Andrews, it was centuries away from the running water, electricity, telephones and city sidewalks of Panama City.
There are a couple of stories about how Teddy and his boat ended up wrecked on the southern shore of Grand Lagoon but one fact is certainly known: Teddy blamed himself for the demise of his beloved vessel and to the day he died he would affectionately pat the decaying wreckage of his boat and, in his heavy Scandinavian accent, explain to visitors,”The boat wrecked here and so we’ve stayed together.”
During the months before his death, Teddy must have had a foreshadowing of things to come. He’d begun selling some of his possessions to visitors and had told Willoughby about where to find the money he’d stashed in his shack in case he passed away. Teddy wanted the money to be used for the final expenses associated with his burial.
Toward the end of his life vandals and burglars had become occasional visitors to Teddy’s cabin. The thieves were probably attracted by the nearby abandoned army post at the jetties that had manned a gun battery at the jetties during WWII to guard Panama City Inlet. Even with the improvements made by the army during the war, the jetties area was still not very accessible by land and a four wheel drive vehicle was necessary to traverse the six miles of dunes that separated the area from Highway 98. Nevertheless, the army barracks were vandalized and Teddy’s cabin had been plundered. Teddy believed that a box containing his 1911 U.S. citizenship papers and his U.S. Navy discharge papers from WWI had been stolen during one of the crimes. For this reason, Teddy never received any form of a pension during his lifetime.
After Teddy’s death Willoughby found the money in the shack Teddy had told him to use for burial expenses along with a box containing all the personal papers that Teddy believed to have been stolen. Willoughby used the money from the shack along with donations to give Teddy a proper burial. The city donated a plot in Greenwood Cemetery and as many as 100 attended Teddy’s funeral, including some Tallahassee dignitaries. One story goes that Teddy’s grave was at first marked with ballast stones from a foreign vessel yet another goes that the ballast rocks came from the wreckage of the beloved boat which first brought the Norwegian to the watery seclusion of Grand Lagoon. In the present day, the second story seems so much more appropriate as one visits Teddy’s grave and sees ballast stones set in the concrete around his burial vault.
Because of the friendship Willoughby had established with Teddy, visitors to St. Andrews State Park’s new Environmental Interpretive Center can catch a glimpse of the little estate on Grand Lagoon that sustained Teddy for a quarter century. It was Willoughby’s job to demolish Teddy’s dwelling and outbuildings and to dispose of his possessions. This wonderful exhibit of a few of Teddy’s tools and personal items along with photographs donated by Willoughby provides us with a window into Theodore Tollofsen’s life as a castaway.
Norwegian fishermen are world famous for building cabins and cottages on the beaches of northern European islands to house themselves during the summer fishing season. For Teddy a winter on Grand Lagoon was probably the equivalent to a summer near the Arctic Circle so Teddy, who ran away to sea at the age of 14, utilized his nautical experience in the construction of his little home on the lagoon. Not only were Norwegians at the end of the 19th century the most desired deckhands on the world’s sailing ships but they were also famed on the Gulf Coast as wreckers and salvagers so it was understandable that the shutters on Teddy’s cabin would be zinc plated skylight hinges retrieved at low tide from some wreck in the Old Pass. The inside of Teddy’s cabin contained so many nautical items that you felt like you’d just climbed below deck into the captain’s quarters. A wood cook stove was the centerpiece of this Spartan affair with a built in table and bunk. Nine lanterns of various designs hung, stood or rested around the small room along with a battery powered radio Teddy used to hear the news and weather of the day. The inside of Teddy’s cabin contained so many nautical items that it looked like he’d raided a maritime museum. The ornately carved nameplate of the TECUMSEH crowned one window. The Tecumseh was built in Gloucester, Mass. In 1911 and sank in the Old Pass at Land’s End, possibly in the same hurricane that wrecked Teddy’s boat in ’29.
Teddy’s resourcefulness with the driftwood and the wrecked lumber that came in on the tides of the Grand Lagoon Peninsula was also evident in the small structures that surrounded his cabin. From his lumberyard, which included everything from pieces of plywood to massive 10 inch by 10 inch pilings, Teddy constructed a small pier on the lagoon with a fish cleaning house. A single concrete block served as the step off his front porch and salvaged lumber was used to build a smokehouse, a well cover, privy, storage shed, chicken coop and “South Florida,” a raised roofed sleeping platform without walls built about three feet above the dunes behind Teddy’s cabin in order to take advantage of the summer breezes and avoid the season’s heat and mosquitos. Keeping with the nautical theme, Teddy’s hen house was covered with tarred cotton fish net.
In addition to the heat of the summer, the cold of winter and the sting of mosquitos, Teddy also had to adapt to less that crystal clear drinking water. He had hand drilled a twenty foot deep well through layers of sand, muck, shell, clay and hardpan to get to a stream of dark brown, tannic acid stained water. Willoughby told a story about how Teddy’s well water was so brown that Teddy would often forget to drop in tea leaves when he brewed his “tea.”
For refrigeration Teddy dug a root cellar in order provide a cool space to store his chicken’s eggs. In addition to eggs, Teddy’s breakfast often included oatmeal and sea greens. Sea greens are green leafy algae of the genus Ulva that grows on the rocks of the jetties and is exposed at low tide each day. Teddy thrived on the abundance of seafood and his smokehouse was filled with split mullet and maybe a ham or two from one of the wild pigs that inhabited the Grand Lagoon Peninsula at that time.
Teddy was reclusive and lacked any close neighbors but he still needed money so at least once a week he’d make his way into town, either by rowing or by motoring his small boat across the bay and walked the streets of St. Andrews peddling the fresh flounder he’d gigged the night before or searching for odd jobs such as repairing nets or rigging boats in the marina. Teddy may have turned his back on society but he certainly didn’t turn his back on the dollar. He needed cash, not for liquor, he claimed to have given up drinking in Mobile in 1907, “I quit drinking in Mobile after I figured I’d been a fool long enough.”; nor for tobacco. Teddy never picked up that bad habit but he did need cash for canned milk, oatmeal, grits, sugar, flour and tea as well as for radio batteries, chicken feed, lamp oil and outboard motor fuel.
Teddy apparently had little need for human companionship in his sandy solitude but he did have a soft spot in his heart for animals. He kept cats and he had his yard birds and he told Willoughby a story about raising a pet hog. After saving the little pig from drowning in shallow water near Shell Island, Teddy placed the little porker in his boat and took it home to raise. Within a year the pig had become Teddy’s constant companion and had acquired a love of fishing. The moment Teddy picked up his cast net or his homemade rod and rusty reel, the pig clamored into the boat, positioning himself in the bow and placing his front hooves up on the gunnels, ready for a bumpy ride on the bay. Things rocked along well for about a year but by then the pig had grown so large that he’d almost sink the bow of the boat and out of necessity Teddy passed his pet hog along to a fellow Norwegian in St. Andrews. Stories vary on whether Teddy’s pig ended up on the dinner table or lived out his days in the neighborhoods around Beck Avenue.
So how does one come about to choose such a strange lifestyle? Was Teddy’s irrational attachment to the rotting wreckage of his old boat enough to explain a quarter century of self-sustained isolation? Could Teddy have been mentally handicapped? He certainly had the opportunity to experience neurological damage. On at least two occasions during his career as a deckhand he’d been poisoned into unconsciousness before being shanghaied. He’d been struck by lightning on three occasions: once in South Dakota; once on board a fishing schooner in the Gulf; and once on Grand Lagoon near his little shack.
All of these things are clues to why Teddy chose the life of a rugged individualist but Teddy’s secret may exist in a mysterious photo Willoughby found after Tollofsen’s death in the long lost box containing Teddy’s personal papers. Teddy claimed he’d always lived a solitary life and had never married but Willoughby found a photograph of a bride and groom in the box and the picture of the groom bears a remarkable resemblance to what Teddy may have looked like before he became a shaggy gray headed and weather beaten old man. Could Teddy’s story be another Norse legend of the sea, one that includes one last dangerous voyage that left not a widowed mother and lost children but a lost love that asks the haunting, eternal question: “Is it better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all?”
But in summing up the strange life of Theodore Tollofsen, perhaps the author of the 1950 article about Teddy in the Florida Parks Service magazine describes best how Teddy’s self-sufficiency and independence turned his life into a legend that lives on until this very day:
“For my money he’s a memorial to the frontiersman that has made our country the greatest in the world today, living proof that an energetic person can get his just share of fish and grits come hell or high water.”
Information for this article came from Jeannie Weller Cooper’s PANAMA CITY BEACH: TALES FROM THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACHES, James Burgess’ SAND IN MY SHOES, and page 26, February 23, 1975 Panama City News Herald article entitled, TEDDY THE HERMIT.
I tell ya what. It time fo' OLD TUSKEELOOSEE to start planning its BICENTENNIAL and IMHO, the best way to KICK IT OFF is to make signs which remind people of the old street names BUT not only that!
The citizens of Tuscaloosa should make it THEIR CIVIC DUTY to DISCOVER & LEARN how each street name has a connection to their city.
Here's my contribution to the cause:
1. MLK, Jr. Blvd. - WEST MARGIN STREET
2. 31st Ave.- BEAVER STREET
3. 30th Ave.- DEER STREET
4. 29th Ave.- BROWN STREET
5. 28th Ave.- JACKSON STREET
6. 27th Ave.- FRANKLIN STREET
7. Lurleen B. Wallace, S.- JEFFERSON STREET
8. Lurleen B. Wallace, N.- WASHINGTON STREET
9. Greensboro Ave.- MARKET STREET
10. 23rd Ave.- MONROE STREET
11. 22nd Ave.- MADISON STREET
12. 21st Ave.- COLLEGE STREET
13. 20th Ave.- YORK STREET
14. 19th Ave.- BEAR STREET
15. Queen City Ave.- EAST MARGIN STREET (later, QUEEN CITY STREET)
16. 3rd St.- SPRING STREET
17. 4th St.- PINE STREET
18. University Boulevard- BROAD STREET
19. 6th St.- COTTON STREET
20. 7th St.- UNION STREET
21. 8th St.- PIKE STREET
22. 9th St.- LAUDERDALE STREET
23. Bryant Dr.- LAWRENCE STREET
24. 11th St.- OAK STREET
25. 12th St.- WALNUT STREET
26. 13th St.- LOCUST STREET
27. 14th St.- CHESTNUT STREET
28. 15th St.- SOUTH MARGIN STREET (later, CRESCENT CITY AVENUE)