Wood crane

Dale Olson and a man-powered crane he crafted out of wood.

Trees were a blessing for our local pioneers, like my grandparents who came over here from Norway in the late 1870s. Before they could plant crops, they had to clear the forests. But nothing went to waste. There were logs for building cabins, slender trees for fence posts and wood for the stove. Yes, wood. They didn’t have gold in the hills, but they had wood.

Dale Olson, a high school classmate of mine, has lived a productive life, where wood has played a major role. Dale grew up on a farm much like the one I was raised on east of Fosston. Four years ago, I spent a day with Dale and his wife, Jonni, at their home in North Phoenix, Arizona and was fascinated by the wood models he has made, like the man-powered crane seen in the photo. 

He got the idea from a Discovery Channel program on how the pyramids might have been built. Since there was no water to power the wheel, a man would climb the steps inside the wheel. Each step would turn the wheel. Dale has now constructed models of nine different man-powered lifting machines, all out of wood with no metal. This hobby turned into a business. He is now making cedar garden boxes and selling them on Swip Swap North Phoenix. They are popular in Arizona because the ground is so dry and hard, it’s difficult to plant anything in a regular garden.

I wanted to know more about his family life, because we had been out of touch since our high school days. He told me, “I met Jonni when I was doing road construction, operating heavy equipment. She was going to college in the city where we worked. We were introduced through some very good friends I worked with.”  

I asked Dale why they moved out West. He explained, “My wife, two young boys and I moved to Tacoma, Washington in 1966, when I was hired by the Boeing company. But after a couple years at Boeing, I was getting itchy to get back to working with wood. I started moonlighting on weekends, helping friends and acquaintances with small remodeling jobs. That’s when I thought I should start my own company, D R Olson Construction. I later changed the name to Cedardale Homes.  

“Being a general contractor, I ran the jobs, doing the carpentry work and hiring subs to do electrical, plumbing, etc. When our boys were old enough, they started working with me and then later started their own companies. We did the framing and finish work. I got to know several architects, so I got many referrals from them. Throughout the 50-plus years, I never had to advertise. The jobs came by referrals.” He told me that over the years they have built over 100 homes in the Tacoma area. Some of those homes are now selling for over a million bucks. Dale is retired now, enjoying the rewards of his efforts. He and Jonni are blessed with a large family, two sons and a daughter, six granddaughters and four great-grandchildren. 

As we visited, I kept looking at the model of that wooden, man-powered crane and wanted to learn more about the process. He took me into his shop, which gave me an up-close look at new models he was working on. I examined a gear he had crafted out of wood and I marveled at the intricate shaping of each cog. I started thinking about his hobby and how this all came about. My old friend Dale has made a life out of wood, beginning with his grandfather who cleared the trees for crops and his father who worked as a carpenter and was a good craftsman.

I started this essay talking about the blessings of trees on the farm. Dale and I share that rich, childhood environment. We scouted the woods for a slender tree branch with a “Y” shaped fork, perfect for making a slingshot. We looked for a supple elm branch for making a bow and a straight oak branch for crafting the arrow. We were sharpening our imaginations by learning how to make our own toys. Most kids today are missing much of that. They can order a slingshot on Amazon.com. Even slingshot ammo: half-inch steel ball-bearings, 200 for $15.95 plus shipping. But they miss the adventure of hunting for stones, perfect size and smooth.


Ozzie Tollefson lives near Phelps Mill and is the author of “Mr. Teacher.”

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