SEFFNER —When Tom Stoltenborg sits cross-legged in his plush, blue living room recliner, leans his head back onto a white pillow and closes his 95-year-old eyes, his childhood lived along the banks of the Palm River returns to him in vivid detail.
The tangy flavor of wild blackberries picked to a bucket’s brim from the ditch along his family’s back property. The summertime ice cream hand-churned with milk his daddy got twice a day from the family cow. The aroma of percolating coffee rising from the kitchen’s kerosene stove. The first Cuban sandwich he ever ate at the Spanish Park Restaurant. The meat sandwiches he traded in his school cafeteria for boiled duck eggs or biscuits covered with mashed potatoes. The afternoons spent boiling blue crabs in the backyard after pulling them at low tide from oyster beds in McKay Bay.
His short-term memory, he says, can be a little shaky. But everything Stoltenborg remembers from long ago is high-definition clear.
A meticulous nature drives him to fill dozens of plastic binders with his hand-written recollections of those early days. Each page, protected within a clear sleeve, is filled with crisp penmanship on yellow legal paper. Each book of stories sits on pine shelves he built for his terrazzo-floored Florida room. Each binder’s spine wears a colored dot that corresponds to the family member or friend who will inherit it when he’s gone.
He has lived alone in his three-bedroom, two-bath, yellow-brick home under a tall oak canopy since 2004, when Maggie, his wife of 50 years, died.
They built their home for $10,900 in 1963. Just a country girl who didn’t even know how to boil water when they married, she became the saving grace of his life. She secretly sent extra money every month to pay the mortgage five years early.
He still drives his 2003 Buick Century with the original tires to the grocery and the doctor and to First Methodist in Brandon on Sundays. He still trims the bushes and mows his own lawn, although it takes him two days of riding to cut just under an acre. “The back is nothing but weeds, now,” he says with resigned disappointment.
Born in 1918 in Tifton, Ga., Stoltenborg’s parents, Tom Sr. and Huldia, moved him and older brother Dick and older sister Mary to Tampa from Jacksonville in 1920, four years after pilot Tony Jannus flew the world’s first commercial flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa. He was 7 years old when the Tampa Theatre opened. “That was a big deal.”
Dick and Amy are gone. So is his youngest brother, Harry. His oldest son, Tom, is 76, while his youngest, Steve, is 74. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren are too many to count without sitting down and writing their names. “I’ve got two great-great, all from Steve,” he says.
The collected memories are a glimpse into an era of Tampa that disappears with every new building and expanded street. This was before Stoltenborg’s wood-frame riverfront home had electricity, a time when many roads just east of Tampa were made of crushed shells and limestone, and train engineers blasted steam at him and Dick as they fished with hand lines for sheepshead beneath the ties of a railroad trestle.
When the day eventually comes, a daughter-in-law will inherit most of his tales. The green dot says so. Until then, he keeps writing. Line by line.
“I’m doing pretty good for an old guy,” he says with a south Georgia accent as sweet and soft as peach tea.
And then he tells his stories.
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I was born in Tifton, Ga., Aug. 11, 1918, before World War I ended. I was probably about 2 when we moved to Jacksonville. My dad was in the meat-packing business. When he came over from Denmark, he went to Minnesota, where all the good Scandinavians go. That’s where he met my mother. He went to work in a meat-packing plant there.
When we came to Tampa, do you know what a touring car is? It’s like a roadster, open, with a folding top, only it has two seats. They called them touring cars and we had a Ford Model T touring car. I remember we had a gallon Thermos jug. Dick and Amy sat in the back. I sat in the front on that Thermos jug between Momma’s legs there.
We came to Tampa and lived at the corner of Florida Avenue and Keyes Avenue. Where Columbus Drive is — that was Michigan Avenue — and Florida Avenue going north. It was a one-block street. It was shell. We lived there about a year and then moved to Palm River. That was the house without electricity.
I was 6 years old when we moved to Palm River in 1924. Not having electricity didn’t bother me any, except the oil lamps we used at night would flicker, and shadows would scare the dickens out of me. We lived in a big, old, two-story wood-frame house. We lived right on the river. We were the last house before it emptied into McKay Bay. Between us and the bay was a tract of land owned by the McKay family. Of course McKay Bay is named for them.
At 50th Street and Palm River Road, there was a ditch there — now it’s paved over. Back then, there was a wooden bridge and a little store on the other side. One time Momma told Amy to go over and get a loaf of bread, so she went to get the horse. That horse would not cross that bridge. She’d scream and holler and everything. She’d finally have to get off and walk over to get the bread. It was limestone then. Palm River Road dead-ended where U.S. 301 is now.
All of Palm River, and this included 22nd street, there may have been maybe three dozen families. The only paved road was 50th street. Asphalt bricks with tar over them. We called that “the hard road.” That’s where our mailbox was, up on the hard road. I rode my horse all over that area out there.
Mr. Tom Lykes gave us a cow pony and a Shetland pony. After I got the Shetland, that’s the one I rode all the time. It was more my size. The pony’s name was Black Beauty. We didn’t have a saddle at first. We used a croaker sack, a feed sack, a gunny sack. We’d throw that over the horse’s back and ride that. We had a Jersey cow. Dad milked that cow twice a day. Along the back of the property, we had 2½, 3 acres of yard. Along the back of the property behind us was a ditch where there were wild blackberries. During blackberry season we’d pick a bucket full. That’s what we’d have for supper. Fresh blackberries and fresh milk. Boy, that was good.
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The first kitchen stove we had was kerosene. Later, we got more modern and had gasoline. This was a four-burner stove. We had oil lamps. That was my chore every afternoon, to fill the stove tank with kerosene or gasoline, and the lamps.
My mother was a maniac for cutting recipes out. I’ve got a box of them. Of course, she made a Danish dish with meatballs in it. Being from Minnesota, she didn’t cook any good Cracker food. I never had grits until I was a grown man. We had meat almost every meal because of Dad working at the plant.
We lived there until 1929, when we moved back into Tampa. From 1924, when I was 6 years old, until I was 11 years old. It was just a good country life right there on the river. Oh boy, did we ever fish. Dick and I always carried a hand line in our pocket.
At the very end of the river, where it emptied into the bay on the McKay property and over on the Lykes property, there was a partial railroad trestle built that was never finished during World War I. We would go there and fish. Catch sheepshead. For bait we would just wander out into the marshes and pick snails off. We’d catch sheepshead with those. We’d find arrowheads where the Indians had fished.
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Momma would give us a dime and we’d stop at the little grocery store on 50th street and get ourselves a cold drink for a nickel and a can of sardines, Vienna sausage or potted meat. If we got potted meat we’d have to use our other nickel for saltines. We’d go down there and fish off the train trestle over the Palm River. A lot of times we’d get up on the ties to get a different fishing position, and when the train came by — these were old steam trains – when we saw one coming, we’d hunker down real low. Those engineers got even with us and shot steam at us. Didn’t hurt us, but you couldn’t see anything. They loved to do that.
After we moved to Palm River, I rode a bicycle from Palm River to Hillsborough High. It was about 14 miles. When I was about 15, we got out of school at 3:05. I’d go home and change clothes. By then, we lived in a big brick house. I’d go back to the plant, I’d work five four-hour days. I’d work 4 to 8 and then 4 to 12 on Saturday. I got $6.
I packed sausage at night. Later on, after I got out of school, I went to work full-time. I was running the shipping department.
You ever hear of Slim Whitman? He worked there. I took him to the doctor when he cut his finger off. He worked on the night crew. He slipped while cleaning the floor. The sausage grinder caught this finger and took the meat off right there. We didn’t know that because it was covered with sausage. I took him to the doctor, old Doc Stringer. He said, “Take him over there and wash his hand off.” I’m washing his hand of and pretty soon I’m washing bone. So anyway, that’s why he had to learn to play the guitar left-handed.
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I remember the first stoplight Tampa had. I think it was at Cass and Franklin. It was a pipe with a base on it. On top was this four-sided thing that had a light in it. A cop would get out in the street and turn it around to direct traffic. When they started putting up traffic lights, every time the light would change, a bell would ring. CLANG! CLANG!
While we were still in the old, first house, Saturday was our go-to-town day. Each of us got a dollar-a-week allowance we had to work for. We’d have lunch and then head to Ybor City. Dad would go to the bolita joints, Mom and Amy would go to the dry goods. Women made most of their own clothes. Dick and I would head for Kress and Woolworth.
Before we went anywhere, there was a Cuban guy on a bicycle with a little glass cage on the front with a can of Sterno or a candle selling devil crabs. They were real crab and not that big. Only about a dime. It was a good little meal. You got sauce for it in a bottle if you wanted it. There was one on every corner.
On the sidewalks in Ybor, Latino boys would line the curb. They dressed in white shirts and white pants and everything was stiffly starched. Here come the girls, and they’d have their duena — an aunt or family friend or a mother — and they’d strictly supervise and chaperone. The boys would stand there and look at those girls. They wanted to look at them, but as the girls were walking by, they’d move their eyes but they wouldn’t move their head. The girls would do the same thing.
After the Tampa Theatre opened, that was really something then. Loved to go there. For a dollar you could take your girl for a quarter apiece. That was a high price then. You could take your girlfriend, get a candy bar and then go to Goody Goody and get a hamburger all for a dollar. Man, them were good hamburgers.
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Their fruit at Latino groceries, their apples were always bigger and redder than Anglo groceries. You go into those stores, they were all family affairs. They lived upstairs. There were chairs around the store for the family. They would stay open until there wasn’t anyone coming in. This was in Ybor. Same in the Latino groceries in West Tampa. You go in there and the smell of spices would hit you in the face. You’d go in and here was bins of onions and garlic. All the smells mingled. The butcher shop was always in the back. A lot of times on the back wall you’d see bacalao, salted codfish hanging on a nail on the wall. A lot of them would make granite. They made lemon-flavored ice, sort of. Sherbet. Homemade. Man, that was good.
Every house had a nail by the door. The bread man would come and hang a loaf of Cuban bread on there. That’s what they had for breakfast. They’d dunk it in their coffee. I love that.
At the corner of 15th street and what is Martin Luther King now, it used to be Buffalo Avenue. There was a large building there full of chickens. You could go in there and pick the chicken you’d want. You could wait a few minutes, and they’d bring it out for you to cook it for Sunday dinner. They were there for many years. I’ve often wondered how many chickens met their fate.
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The good Lord blessed me when he brought little Maggie into my life. It changed my life. We were going on our 51st year when she died. A hurricane came through that day. Boy, that was a sweet woman. My whole family is just so good to me.
I am the oldest family member that I know of. My great-grandfather was 88 when he died. My mother died three days after her 88th birthday. My great-grandmother, I’m not sure. She was pretty close to 80. But all the rest of them. … My dad was about 66. Dick, my older brother, he may have been 60.
I’ve lived a good life. I’m in relatively good health. I do exercises for my knees. I keep walking so they’ll stay flexible. But my family is wonderful to me.
I’m amazed at the things I’ve seen. I’m really, truly amazed. That’s the story of my life, I guess.