Two words: "Don't smoke."
That's what Orville Olson said when I asked if he had any
advice for us younger folks on the eve of his 100th birthday.
I had gone to his farm home north of Cortland to interview him
in anticipation of his turning 100 on Sept. 26 and ended with
the above question.
He expanded on that, explaining that his grandfather made
a deal with him when he turned 12: He would give Orville a new
bike if he promised never to smoke or drink (alcohol) his entire
life. Orville eagerly agreed and got the birthday present. He
has from time to time had a beer or glass of wine at a social
occasion, but for the most part has steered clear of both evils.
Spending time with him was rewarding as he told life stories
and family anecdotes that began not with him, but his father
who came to America at the age of 19 and his grandfather Nelson
on the other side of his family who bought the farm in 1889,
where Orville has spent his entire life, and has no intention
of ever moving.
About his birth: "When the time came, my grandmother,
who was a registered nurse, sent word to Doc Nesbitt and he drove
out here as fast as he could in his horse and buggy." That's
when Orville was delivered at home, only a stone's throw from
where he now lives in an adjacent house. His original family
home was torn down and replaced some years ago and his daughter
Andra lives there now.
But lets go back a generation when his father Otto came
over from Sweden on a spur of the moment decision. A young friend
came to his farm in Sweden late one night to say goodbye because
he was going to America and Otto got excited enough to ask his
father if he could give him the money to go with the friend.
The father was obliging enough to round up the money to finance
the trip. It took three weeks on a steamer, then waiting three
days at Ellis Island in New York harbor, before they were cleared
to take a train to Illinois, where the other man was heading
to find his
Orville Olson outside his farm home with the family
barn in background Orville Olson stands behind the baptismal font he
obtained from the Salem Lutheran Church when the old edifice
was torn down. That was the font used when he was baptized there
99 years ago. (Barry Schrader photos)
sister who worked for a bakery in Sycamore. They finally got
a train from Chicago to Cortland, then eventually found their
way to Sycamore. His dad found a job as a farmhand, then later
married his mother Edith Nelson and that is how the family ended
up on the Nelson farm, which had been purchased in 1889.
Getting back to Orville, he went through the 10th grade in Cortland,
which is as far as school went there, then transferred to Sycamore
where he graduated in 1935. He is the only one left out of 76
in his class, Martha Wetzel being the last classmate to pass
away, he said.
Asked about his early life, Orville told about his father
being a dairy farmer who died from a heart condition at age 60.
Orville milked as many as 35 cows after he took over the farm.They
didn't get a power line strung past the farm until 1926 and that's
when the family bought their first radio. Then they added a
Motorola television in 1955. He has not joined the computer and
internet age yet, but does have a small cellphone in his pocket
that he showed me.
He has so many good stories I have scant room to tell any
here. But here are a couple more for now: Starting when he was
five, his mother and he would walk down the road to the Cortland
train depot and take the morning short line train from there
up to Sycamore to shop. Then late in the day they would get back
into the single passenger car and come home. That same depot
is where his father took their milk cans to be hauled to Borden
in Chicago, he recalls.
He had a ready explanation for the antique baptismal font
in his front room. That font was used at the Salem Lutheran Church
to baptize him 99 years ago and then nine more members of his
family. The old church was to be torn down and a new one built,
so most of the furnishings were sold, and he got that font.
About his marriage: His first wife Elaine passed away at
the young age of 58 from cancer. She had given him two sons and
a daughter. Then several years after her death he was a patient
at (the first) Kishwaukee Hospital and met this nice night nurse.
It was one of the four times he had surgery, replacing two knees
and then both hips. Soon after he recovered be began dating that
nurse named Wilda and five years later they were married. Wilda
is only 90 so she may outlast him. Between them they have eight
grown children, and a whole passel of grand and great-grand kids.
It is worthwhile mentioning how many presidents he has
seen-dead or alive. In 1923 when Present Woodrow Wilson died
out west, the funeral train came through Cortland. It stopped
so the baggage car door could be slid open to reveal the flag-draped
coffin of the late President, but just for one minute. Then it
moved on. Much later, around 1967 when he and his family were
on a vacation trip to Philadelphia, President Lyndon B. Johnson
happened to be in town. They waited in the crowd to see him and
the kids actually touched LBJ's hand as he greeted well wishers.
Not telling me which political party he favors, he did mention
he has voted in every election since he was 21. He was also elected
a township trustee from Cortland and served 33 years in that
I just about forgot to mention: He owns a 2008 Prius and
drove over to the DeKalb DMV and passed his driver's test with
no problem. Plus, he has three old tractors he has in the barn
behind his house