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‘Ole The Hermit’

Published: Nov. 25, 2021 at 7:49 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Some Nicknames stick to famous people and replace their real names. “Wild Bill Hickok,” “Babe Ruth”, and “Buffalo Bill Cody,” are just a few folks who became synonymous with their monikers.

Another distinguished individual from Valley City, who is also recognized by a unique byline, has carved out a huge following in some circles of North Dakota.

“You can tell an Ole, they were about eleven inches tall to about six inches, this one is of Abraham Lincoln” says Wes Anderson, the curator of the Barnes County Museum in Valley City.

An “Ole” refers to a hand carved wooden statue whittled by Ole Olson.

“He said, ‘look at the wood, envision what you want, remove what you don’t and there you have a carving,’” said Wes Anderson, Barnes County Museum curator.

Todd Hanson of Mandan owns 75 Ole’s.

He’s been collecting the Norwegian’s work for more than 25-years.

“Ole was a flat plane carver, and you will notice that there are flat little planes on his figures when you look at them, more of a whittler than a refined type of carver.” said Hanson.

Ole usually carved the likenesses of everyday North Dakotans.

His family, friends, local farmers, and neighbors were common subjects. “He carved the local Norwegian couples,” said Hanson.

Artistry and attention to detail are what hooked Hanson on “Ole’s.” Olson used reconstituted paint shavings from abandoned buildings for paint, glued actual human hair onto the heads of his carvings and molded real leather brims for their hats.

Ole was quite a character himself. Born in Norway in 1882, he immigrated to North Dakota and farmed near Litchville, then moved to Valley City in the 1932 and somehow acquired the nickname “Ole ‘The Hermit’ Olson” but no one knows exactly why.

“I think that’s a good question no one has been able to answer,” said Anderson.

Ole spent most of his life letting his hands do the talking. “He was a little bit elusive,” said Anderson.

His carvings became so popular they were used as a form of currency. “I’m told he would use them to barter for groceries or services.” said Anderson.

It took Ole about four hours to transform a chunk of birch into a piece of folk art.

Olson sculpted his characters in everyday circumstances, like a woman sweeping the floor with a broom or men standing around with their hands in their pockets.

The simplicity of his work is one of the reasons his carvings remain so popular with ordinary people.

A dozen of Ole Olson’s carvings are on public display at the Barnes County Historical Society in Valley City.

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