PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. - During the hurricane of 1929, Theodore Tollofsen and his 26-foot fishing boat were battered and tossed before being shipwrecked on a Florida peninsula. Happy to safely reach land, Tollofsen decided to stay there.
“He was known as ‘Teddy the Hermit’ and he lived here for 25 years,” said Brian Addison, manager of St. Andrews State Park. “As far as we know he didn’t pay taxes or rent to live here and he was the first known full-time resident of the land that is now the park.”
The Norwegian-born sailor was later quoted as saying, “The boat wrecked here and so we’ve stayed together.”
Like a true-life Robinson Crusoe, Tollofsen used scrap lumber from his wrecked boat and other hurricane debris to fashion a makeshift shack. He later built a smokehouse and chicken pen where he kept 11 red hens and a one-eyed rooster. For friendship, he had three black cats and a pet pig.
To supplement his seafood and egg diet, Tollofsen sold flounder and other fish that he had caught to a local fish market. Tollofsen died in 1954 at age 74.
That’s just one of the interesting tidbits I learned on a visit to St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach. The park’s Environmental Interpretive Center has an interesting exhibit on Teddy the Hermit along with some of his possessions, such as his straight razor and seaman’s identification card. The center is a great place to get an overview of the park. It has a video, topographical map and some wonderful dioramas on butterflies, shell collections, birds, seat turtle nesting and much more.
It is easy to understand why St. Andrews State Park is consistently named one of the top parks in the state of Florida. “We’re one of the busiest parks in the state of Florida,” Addison said. “We are open 365 days a year and it seems like someone is here every day …Our busiest season is March through Labor Day but there is always something to see and do here no matter when you come.”
PARK’S EARLY HISTORY
In early days, Native Americans gathered on the shores to feast on shellfish and purge themselves with the infamous “black drink” made from yaupon leaves. Remnants of their visits can be seen in the numerous shell middens which dotted shores of the bay. European settlers, however, weren’t much interested in the vast sandy beaches. Instead, they chose to settle inland for more fertile farmland.
During World War II, St. Andrews became a military reservation whose purpose was to protect the area from German submarines which were operating in the Gulf of Mexico. “The park was established in 1949 and we became a state park in 1951,” Addison said.
At more than 1,200 acres, St. Andrews State Park offers something for everyone. The park is host to salt marshes, pine scrub and rolling sand dunes along more than a mile and a half of beach on the Gulf of Mexico. “The sand dunes are a natural protection from high tides,” Addison said.
Located on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, St. Andrews is home to a whole slew of beautiful birds – plovers, gulls, terns, sandpipers, egret, heron and much more. Sit quietly by the shore and you can watch the acrobatic antics of a shorebirds fishing for their next meal.
St. Andrews offers fishing catches galore. Fishing is popular from the shoreline, the lagoon pier or the beach pier, which extends 500 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico. Catches include Spanish mackerel, redfish, flounder, sea trout, bonito, cobia, mahi mahi and blue fish. A boat ramp is located on the Grand Lagoon near the fishing pier. A concession also offers bait and rental canoes and kayaks.
Kayakers and paddlers can venture across the boat channel to Shell Island, a seven-mile long undeveloped barrier island showcasing Florida at its most natural. There are no concession stands, no restroom facilities, no picnic tables or shaded pavilions. Shell Island is a beautiful place to rest, reflect and see nature at its most graceful. Getting its name from the abundance of seashells, Shell Island still draw beachcombers hunting for prize shells.
St. Andrews State Park offers a shuttle boat that runs to Shell Island. During peak summer season, the shuttle runs every half-hour, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Schedule varies so be sure to call ahead and check.
Swimming in the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico with its wave action is thrilling. Or choose to chill out in the shallow protected pool behind the jetty. The shoreline and rock jetties offer a great opportunity to study marine life up close.
St. Andrews State Park also offers two campground, picnic facilities and concession, plus some wonderful biking and hiking trails. What I didn’t expect to find was the historic turpentine still at St. Andrews. The still shows the process by which resin from the once-abundant longleaf pine was refined by heating, cooling and filtering. The turpentine was especially valuable for caulking old wooden ships. By the 1950s, synthetic had come to replace the use of turpentine and the longleaf pines that once blanketed much of southeastern U.S. are now nearly gone.
For more information: Visit www.floridastateparks.org/standrews/ or www. visitpanamacitybeach.com