He was a quiet, unassuming fellow who didn't seek publicity. But oh, how he could carve.
His name was Ole Olson, but he gained the fame he didn't want as Ole the Hermit.
He didn't always live alone. He was married in 1921 to an Irish girl named Hazel. But after her death in 1934, Ole settled down in Valley City, N.D., with only Bertha, his cat, for company and spent much of his time carving.
Ole died in 1966. But he left behind many carved figures which are popular because of their intricacy and the wry humor he carved into them.
Don Gronbeck of Perham, Minn., writes that when "I was a kid in Valley City in the early '40s, I used to visit Ole occasionally with my mother, who would often buy one of his small carved figures. I am sure I have a few somewhere."
The late author Don Crothers wrote about Ole. So did historian Erling Rolfsrud. Their writings were sent to Neighbors by Wes Anderson of the Barnes County Historical Society in Valley City. The information that follows is culled from those sources.
Ole was an infant when his parents came from Norway to homestead near Litchville, N.D. The family attended the North LaMoure Lutheran Church and the children (Ole was the oldest of eight) attended rural Litchville schools.
When their father died, Ole was 16 and had to take over the farm and be head of the family. He served in the U.S. military in France during World War I.
When he came home and married Hazel, he wound up with a wife who was not the happiest bride in the world. The newlyweds moved in with Ole's mother, who spoke only Norwegian, and Hazel couldn't speak or understand that language.
All of the other people her age spoke Norwegian, too. That, coupled with the fact Hazel wasn't a good cook, prevented Ole from taking her to gatherings or from having friends and relatives in to eat, so their social life was almost nonexistent.
But along with farming, Ole carved, and carved well: figures of people, often of men wearing ill-fitting clothes and of women wearing shawls. Or of people fishing. Or, perhaps his most famous, an entire donkeyball game, now on loan to the Barnes County Historical Society Museum from the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the North Dakota Council on the Arts.
Often, Ole would carve someone reading a Bible, and he carved many biblical personages, such as Adam, or Mary and baby Jesus on their way to Egypt.
His carvings became so popular that a Chicago department store offered him a nice salary just to sit and whittle while shoppers looked on.
Ole turned the offer down, saying, "What you think I am? A monkey in a cage?"
Ole once was hit by a car in Valley City while he was walking across the street. His insurance adjuster told him he was entitled to compensation for his pain and suffering, but Ole wouldn't take it. Just pay the doctor and hospital bills, he said. That was enough.
Money meant nothing to him. Crothers writes that after Ole died, a number of letters were found in his workbench drawer, many of which contained uncashed checks people had sent him in payment for his carvings.
That was Ole the Hermit, a man who carved a name for himself in North Dakota lore.
If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org