The Mountain Man of Anoka County is ready to hit the trail. He’s got two buggies in the barn, a chuck wagon he’s rebuilding, and an appetite for adventure.
Jon Olson, a division manager known as Man Who Walks Like a Bear, will retire in December after three decades with the county, but he isn’t riding off into the sunset. A civil engineer by trade but buckskinner by nature, Olson will go as far as his culinary and catering skills will take him.
He hands you his latest business card, a photocopy of a $5 bill, circa 1886, with Ulysses S. Grant on the front. On the back, it says: “Hidden Creek Ranch,” and continues: “Jon G. Olson a.k.a Walks Like a Bear Mountain Man & Chuck Wagon Cook. Let us cook your meal.”
The man rides a mule, makes his own buckskin clothes and built a 16½-foot-tall teepee in his basement. He’s one of 700 certified Mountain Men in America. He starts fires without matches, slept outside an entire summer and is a full-blooded Swede who knows American Indian sign language.
You don’t think he can cook?
His specialties are Champagne Chicken (chicken breast marinated in white sauce), pulled pork, raw fried potatoes, triple-berry cobbler, sourdough rolls and sausage, peppers and onion. Man Who Walks Like a Bear looks like he could eat like a horse.
“I’ve cooked ever since college,” Olson said. “It’s like anything else. Whatever I did, I tried to do with integrity.”
A man of purpose
Whether leading the county’s staff of engineers, participating in seven to nine re-enactments a year at rendezvous events, or cooking for 50, Olson has always acted with a purpose and has mastered a rapport with workers that other managers can only envy.
“I never asked an employee to do something I wouldn’t do,” he said. “If you don’t lead by example, you don’t lead at all.”
Olson, 64, the public services division manager who oversees the highway and public works department, has seens jobs and positions come and go. It used to take a crew of 40 to lay, by hand, a curb and gutter, he said. Now, everything is done through automation.
“Is the curb as good?” Olson asked. “I don’t think it’s as good. But we don’t want to afford what it would cost to do it the old way.”
For Olson, that’s a sign that it’s time to move on.
Olson grew up on a dairy farm in Palmyra Township, Minn., just outside of Bird Island. He knew the names of all 30 of the family’s milking cows. He remembers his dad’s old Ford pickup being coated and smelling of feed dust. The family had no TV when he was a youngster. Life after chores and school meant activities at a small country church.
“I can tell you what you did every Sunday when you were growing up,” he said. “You visited relatives or neighbors. That’s what everyone did.
“Maybe our wants and needs were less,” he reminisces.
He went into engineering after receiving a “D” in a high school algebra course.
“Getting a D from him was bad,” Olson said of a teacher he has since thanked. “Getting a D and bringing it home to my mother and father was worse.”
For his part, the teacher didn’t see a D student. “You have the tools,” he told Olson.
Olson graduated from North Dakota State University in 1971. As a senior, he worked with a graduate student and a local firm on a federal engineering project, he said. When he still hadn’t landed a job with the firm by May 15 of his senior year, Olson cornered Kip Moore, the owner of Moore Engineering, and not so subtly asked, “Are you going to hire me or aren’t you?”
“I guess so,” Moore replied.
Olson said he worked at Moore, in West Fargo, for seven years before moving on to municipal work in Gaylord, Minn. Regardless of where he worked, he vowed to “keep your mouth shut and your eyes open because these guys were going to teach you what you need to know.”
But nothing could have prepared him for a sudden unraveling of his personal life.
Olson and his high school sweetheart, Sue, were married when he was 21 and she was 19. A few years later, they adopted a three-week-old girl, Jessica. He had a loving family, a good job, a fairy tale existence.
And then, after 10 years of marriage, Sue died of liver cancer.
Olson was devastated. But within his family, there was another broken heart to mend. His cousin Daniel Nielsen died in a deer-hunting accident. Olson ran into Carolyn, his cousin’s widow, at a family reunion.
“Yes, I know it’s the ultimate redneck cliché, but I met my wife at a family reunion,” Olson said.
They’ve been married 32 years.
Now, Olson prepares for the next chapter. He remembers vividly when people felt privileged to have all-weather roads, when public employees were viewed more favorably, when politics didn’t determine our daily essentials.
When Olson asked, in 2006, former Anoka County board chairman Dennis Berg and former County Administrator Terry Johnson, “Why doesn’t somebody organize a six-car wagon train that moves across the country, east to west?” he didn’t wait for an answer. He also put together a wagon train for Minnesota’s sesquicentennial.
Olson still attends re-enactments with other Mountain Men when possible and is proud to show photos of his daughter and his daughter-in-law in buckskin dresses he created. But Olson is no dinosaur. When he presents his résumé, he hands you a folder of DVDs.
As for his culinary venture, the man who says he never asked an employee to do something he wouldn’t do says he will never prepare a dish for a customer that he wouldn’t eat himself.
“Making my chicken or raw, fried potatoes,” he says with a grin, “never gets old.”