Leroy Carlson shows off his boxes of turtles. // Photo by Kamiah Koch
By Kamiah Koch
On a rare day of clear, sunny skies at Boulevard Park in Fairhaven, visitors might stumble upon a man wearing a hat covered with turtles.
Known to locals as the “Turtle Man,” Bellingham resident Leroy Carlson collects shells around local beaches, using them to hand-make turtles to sell so he can donate the proceeds to charity.
“It’s a happy way to spend my spare time,” Carlson said. “My wife thinks I’m obsessed but I just like to help people.”
Carlson said his philanthropic hobby began over 20 years ago after health scares forced him to retire from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in 1991. Carlson said after he retired, he and his wife of 60 years, Ann Carlson, decided they wanted to enjoy life for a while.
He said they decided to travel the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California in an RV. As they visited different beaches, Leroy Carlson said he began to pick up unique shells that glistened on the shores. With each coastline they saw, his seashell collection grew.
“Look how pretty they are,” he said. “I thought something can be done with them.”
His creativity was put to the test when wife Ann Carlson told him family friends were coming to stay with them for a week and he had to decide what to do with all his shells.
“There were shells all over the house,” he said. “She said ‘Clean them up or I’m throwing the shells away.’”
That’s when Leroy Carlson created his first batch of turtles. Made of just shells and hot-glue, he has perfected making turtles out of a variety of flatter clam shells and twisty drill shells over the years.
He said he also sells snail figures made of two shells creating the snails body and two hot-glue-eyeballs. Leroy Carlson said he hand-paints the eyes of each creature to be multicolored.
Some of his turtle or snail creations are lucky enough to receive a few extra dots of hot-glue on their shells, turning the snail into a ladybug.
When he first began making the turtles, Leroy Carlson said he didn’t believe anyone would buy them. He decided to start off by asking $1 for each shell creation.
Carlson’s claim to fame came when scouts from the movie “The Ring” came looking to film a scene in Bellingham. They were looking for something unique to represent Bellingham and chose to include Leroy Carlson’s turtle creations, he said. He still carries the movie contract folded in his wallet and will proudly show it to anyone who asks.
After making it on the big screen, he was told he should sells his magnets and pins for $2 to $5, a price many locals are willing to pay for a good cause. Carlson said the most he has raised in one day is $152.
Carlson said his charity of choice is the Bellingham Food Bank, but he also has donated money to international efforts, such as the crisis fund for the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Carlson said he was able to raise $5,000 for that cause.
In the last three years, Carlson has started to track the turtle revenues. He said by his count, he has collected over $12,000. However, Carlson has been selling his turtles for over 20 years, and the amount is much larger, according to Ann Carlson.
Leroy Carlson said he spends about three days a week in Boulevard Park and around Fairhaven selling his turtle, snail and ladybug shell creations.
He said sometimes he will even go into the Fairhaven Village Green plaza and decorate the Dirty Dan Harris statue with the magnetic turtles. Leroy Carlson tops the statue off with his infamous turtle hat.
With increasing ocean pollution, finding shells for his turtles and snails has become hard, he said. He said the shells have to be a specific size and shape, so he has resorted to purchasing shells to make up for lost product he can’t find on local beaches.
Nonetheless, Leroy Carlson continues to make turtles and snails. He has even shared the skill of making turtles and snails with his family.
“We have eight grandchildren and most of them can do this,” he said.
Ann Carlson chuckled and said, “They’ve sold a few too.”