R. M. "Tolly" Tollefson, RIP

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#1 May 16, 2011 - 11:12am
Chuck Gould

R. M. "Tolly" Tollefson, RIP


A Life Well Lived

If one were pressed to identify an iconic figure that both promoted and personified recreational boating in the Pacific NW, it would be difficult to find a better example than R. M. “Tolly” Tollefson.  After celebrating his 100th birthday January 24, “Tolly” sailed over his final horizon on May 6, 2011. It has been suggested that old age is a reward for a life well lived, and that would certainly appear to be true in the case of R. M. Tollefson.

Tolly was born in Idaho, but his family moved to Portland Oregon when he was eight years old. As he played along the banks of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, Tolly became fascinated with the ships and boats he observed coursing up and down the stream.  Like many other children living near a body of water, Tolly enjoyed building and sailing model boats. Unlike most children, Tolly’s youthful experiments with scraps of wood and an abundance of imagination evolved to become the defining contribution of his life.

After attending the University of Oregon for two years, Tolly moved downstream to Kelso, Washington in 1933. He worked in the insurance and real estate industries, and in his spare time he began to build boats for friends. Tolly first used the name “Tollycraft” to describe a vessel he built in 1936. Tollefson enlisted in the US Coast Guard when WWII broke out in 1941, and did not return to Kelso until mustering out in 1946.

Tolly anticipated the post-war building boom, and purchased the Central Lumber and Millwork Company after his return from military service. A fire destroyed the lumberyard in 1952, presenting Tolly with a decision. He could rebuild the lumber business, or pursue his life-long dream of becoming a full time, professional boat builder. Tolly used the insurance money to establish Tollycraft Boat Building, beginning with only a handful of employees.

Most of the early Tollycraft boats were small runabouts and trailerable cabin cruisers. A 1955 brochure listed four models, featuring a “Cushion Ride” and inviting prospective owners to “Cruise in Comfort”.

Tolly expanded production substantially in 1959, building a state-of-the-art factory adjacent to the Kelso airport. In its day, the Tollycraft factory was one of the largest in the country. Over 6,000 Tollycraft boats were ultimately built in Kelso. Tollefson was one of the first boat builders to hire women as production employees. Career employee Eydie Ramshaw told the Longview Washington Daily News, “Tolly thought that women were more particular about quality.”

Wooden hulled boats were phased out as new Tollycraft models were introduced throughout the 1960’s. By 1970, the Tollycraft catalog included models from 24 to 40 feet in length. According to Ramshaw, Tolly was always on the factory floor, always happy, and quick to compliment and encourage his employees.

Legendary naval architect Ed Monk teamed up with Tolly to design most of the firm’s larger boats and motoryachts. The Tollycraft line sold well throughout the country, but was especially popular in the Pacific NW.  Ed Monk described Tollycraft as “The Cadillac of Boats”, and thousands of satisfied and loyal enthusiasts agreed.

R. M. Tollefson’s company eventually became the largest employer in the city of Kelso, Washington. When he sold the company and retired in 1987, his firm had over 260 managerial and family wage employees. Tolly moved first to Edmonds, and finally to Port Ludlow in his retirement. His last personal boat was a 1991 48-foot Tollycraft, in which he cruised the waters of the Pacific NW and Alaska until he turned 90 years of age in 2001.

To the great disappointment of Tollycraft enthusiasts around the world, the new owners of Tollycraft were unable to remain financially afloat and the factory was closed in 1993.

Several Tollycraft owners’ groups in various parts of the US and Canada still convene regularly to share the continuing joy of owning Tollycraft boats. The annual birthday party for R. M. Tollefson was always well attended, with his centennial party in 2011 an especially significant event.

R. M. “Tolly” Tollefson may be gone, but his legacy lives on. From the perspectives of professional craftspeople who spent entire careers at Tollycraft, as well as thousands of previous and current Tollycraft  boat owners, “Tolly” made a positive impact on boating in the Pacific NW that will endure for generations to come.

R.I.P, Tolly. Thanks for building thousands of fabulous boats, and for sharing the fruits of a life well lived.