Another pioneer family on the shores of Holmes Harbor was that of Tom Tollefsen. The children of the Tollefsens and the Littles and Pearsons were neighbors and grew up together almost as one family.
Margaret Little interviewed Torleif Tollefsen prior to his death in 1984 and his story, as told to her follows.
The teacher gave a sigh of relief as she closed the door of her Bayview school classroom on an afternoon in 1913. School had just started that fall and it had been “one of those days.” She had used the “fir bough,” and she was not happy about it. The switch was supposed to be a preventive measure “before the act” rather than a punitive measure afterward.
The trouble started right at the beginning of class when that great hulk of an eight-year-old boy, Torlief Tollefsen, had come in late with his mass of wheat-colored hair all tousled and his clothes sopping wet. He stood sullenly, refusing to utter a word of explanation, and she assumed he had been up to no good over at Lone Lake on the way to school. She ordered him to go home and change into dry clothes, but he just stood there looking at the floor and finally she swatted his behind with the switch and hand-propelled him out the door.
As he left, Bernice Little raised her hand for permission to speak. “Teacher, Tor wasn’t trying to be bad. He doesn’t speak English and he didn’t understand what you were saying. It wasn’t his fault that he was late and wet. Some of the big boys were teasing him because he was speaking Norwegian and he tried to fight them. They threw him into the lake and he almost drowned. My brother pulled him out.”
Teacher was aghast. Why hadn’t he told her he couldn’t understand English? Silly question! He couldn’t tell her. She didn’t speak Norwegian. She vowed she would give him special help when he returned to school. Also, she would find out which boys were harassing him and give them their just desserts.
As she arrived at the driveway of her home and reached into her rural route mailbox for her mail, she let out a shriek. Along with her letters she pulled out a wriggling, writhing garden snake. Even though it was harmless, the shock nearly did her in. She knew who had put it there and she didn’t much blame him. Next morning, with the help of a Norwegian speaking pupil, she explained to Torlief that she would help him learn English and that his first lesson would be to write, “I will keep out of trouble,” 1,000 times.
The eight-year-old boy with the tousled hair who couldn’t speak English when he entered Bayview School, grew up to be one of the best known and best loved citizens of the area. Whether it was a bulkhead to be built, a tree to be felled, or a sick neighbor whose fence needed mending, the word would go out, “Get Tor; he will fix it.” Wherever that great Viking with the shock of white hair went, there was also excitement and good humor.
One of his favorite stories was about his mother. Occasionally, she would borrow a neighbor’s horse and buggy and drive to Langley to shop. She had business dealings with a creamery on the Langley dock. One particular day, when she drove her rig out onto the wharf, the horse became startled and the buggy, horse, and Mrs. Tollefsen went off the dock into the water. Bystanders hauled her out and cut the buggy loose from the floundering horse, but all of the precious purchases she made, as well as her coat, were lost.
Tor’s parents, Tom Tollefsen of Felkfore, Norway, and Olivia Andreason Tollefsen of Oslo, Norway, settled in Hillman City, Seattle, where his father was a sailor and longshoreman. Tor was bom in 1905. When he was a few months old, his parents, along with their new baby, and his brothers and sisters, Bjorn, Robert, Katrinka, Tora, and Leona moved to South Whidbey. They had traded their Hillman City property for 120 acres on the hill above Holmes Harbor on the side facing Lone Lake. They were neighbors to the Little and Pearson children, also to Carol Kenworthy; all of the youngsters grew up together almost as one extended family.
Each morning, before school started, Tor was up early to do his chores which included feeding the chickens, gathering the eggs, slopping the pigs, and cutting firewood. Whenever there was a dry spell of weather, he also helped round up their family’s livestock which, along with all the other farm animals in the neighborhood, would leave their home turf and rush to Goss Lake for water. He also was on the look-out for poachers from the main-land who would come to the island and kill grouse, quail, and ducks and sell them to an Everett restaurant.
The influenza epidemic of 1918 hit Tor’s family hard; his brother Bjorn, and his sister Leona both died. Tor survived, continued his schooling, and graduated from Bayview’s eighth grade and Langley High School. He helped build Saratoga Road, Newman Road, and East Harbor Road over the years with help from his childhood friends Coral and Ivan Little, and Omer Porter Sr. All of them married, visiting back and forth during their adult years. After Carol Kenworth died from a prolonged Illness, Tor and his wife Zaida continued their friendship with Carol’s widow, Elizabeth.
Zaida died in 1981 and the long standing friendship between Elizabeth and Tor ripened into love. They were married in 1983 in the home of Ivan and Mary Little. They made their home in Hadlock on the Olympic peninsula, where they lived until Tor’s death in 1984. Elizabeth still lives in Hadlock but visits South Whidbey often where she continues the friendships made in earlier years.