In 1923, at the age of 65, Henry Stuart from Nampa, Idaho, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. They still called it “consumption” in those days, and the typical advice from doctors was to move to a better climate.
Since Alabama was warmer than Idaho, Stuart packed up, bought ten acres of wooded land in Baldwin County sight unseen, and moved the 2,500 miles along the routes of the day.
Once Stuart got to Fairhope, Alabama, he built himself a simple, round hurricane-resistant home, only 14 feet in diameter, fashioned from bricks and hand-made concrete blocks. The floor level of the house was set 16 inches below the surrounding land for a more constant intetior temperature. By 1925 the little hut was just about finished, and Stuart dubbed it “Tolstoy Park” (Stuart was aware that Russian author Leo Tolstoy had been virtually a wandering hermit during the time just before his death). Stuart used a ladder to access his “bed”, a rope-strung hammock high above floor level.
Told at the time that he only had a few months left, Stuart wanted a simple life, where he could live on his own terms. His little Alabama home supplied just that, but for a whole lot longer than a few months. Stuart lived another 22 years, and although he began in isolation, his hut became famous. He kept a visitor’s log, which grew to display 1,200 names. Shortly before his death, Stuart sold his holdings and returned to Oregon, where he passed away in 1946 at the age of 88.
During the last years of his life, the “Hermit of Montrose” became a fixture in the community, teaching and inspiring many on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay.
In 2005 Stuart was once again an inspiration, this time for a fact-based novel called “The Poet of Tolstoy Park” by Sonny Brewer. He was also a minor character in Brewer’s later novel, “A Sound Like Thunder”. Today Tolstoy Park is no longer the ten-acre sanctuary it was, surrounded instead by a small cluster of offices and a parking lot. It is, however, on the National Register of Historic Places, so the little hut is there to stay, where you can visit and imagine the truly simple life.
Know Before You Go
Fairhope is in far southwestern Alabama, along the east coast of Mobile Bay. Heading east on I-10 from Mobile, take exit 35 or 35A. Drive south on US Hwy 98 a little over seven miles. Turn right at the stoplight onto Parker Road, and then take the first right into the Montrose Office Park (a shaded cluster of small, low buildings). Tolstoy Park is in the middle, under a large live oak tree. For nearby restaurants, cafes, shops, and galleries you can check out the old sections of Fairhope and Daphne.