Coming down the mountain

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2013 - 1:39 PM

Jon Olson, a certified Mountain Man, is about to retire as a division manager for Anoka County. But, with a meals on wheels venture ahead, he says he’s just getting started.

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Jon Olson, who’s retiring from his Anoka County job, worked at the chuck wagon that will be a part of his new catering business.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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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.

Twisting path

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.

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