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Blacksmith creates decorative gate for Coulee Cemetery

When Rick and Karen Olson of Deer Park, Washington, made their annual visit to see friends and family in Kenmare, Minot and Donnybrook this year, they also honored relatives’ graves in the Coulee Cemetery with flowers. Permanent flowers, created in iron, painted in bold colors, and attached to a new iron gate for the cemetery, designed and built by Rick.

10/20/10 (Wed)

 
A blacksmith's touch . . . Rick Olson, Deer Park, WA, and formerly
of Minot and Donnybrook, designed and fabricated the decorative
iron gate erected at the Coulee Cemetery. The gate is a gift
from Rick and his wife Karen, and valued at about $6,000.

 

By Caroline Downs
 
When Rick and Karen Olson of Deer Park, Washington, made their annual visit to see friends and family in Kenmare, Minot and Donnybrook this year, they also honored relatives’ graves in the Coulee Cemetery with flowers.
 
Permanent flowers, created in iron, painted in bold colors, and attached to a new iron gate for the cemetery, designed and built by Rick.
 
“Everybody wants a decorated grave,” Rick said. “This serves as a decoration for the whole place.”
 
The gate stands as more than a mere entryway to the cemetery, however. All 144 square feet of decorative iron testify to Rick’s passion for the art of blacksmithing and the Olsons’ call to remember the families represented by the gravestones.
 
Thought behind design
At 12 feet high and 12 and a half feet wide, the new structure dwarfs the old gate, which was standard issue for cemeteries decades ago. More than its size, though, the design of the new mild steel iron gate captures the attention of visitors.
 
And Rick had a purpose for every design element in place, whether artistic or functional.
 
The two sides of the gate open as mirror images, each formed of 13 vertical square bars in graduated sizes interlaced with eight horizontal bars. “All these are hand-hammered,” Rick said, running one hand over the evenly-dimpled surface of the iron. “That makes it look a lot nicer.”
 
Small baskets and acorns adorn the top of each vertical bar, attached by a French clip and welded securely then painted black for a seamless look. A filigree cross hangs in the top center position of each side, surrounded by four hearts set into the gate panel.
 
“I found those crosses in Texas,” Rick said, adding he was able to purchase them for a lower cost than he could actually fabricate them, although he has made similar crosses in the past. “Then I modified them to weld onto the gate.”
 
The hearts are a trademark symbol for Rick. “I love hearts,” he said. “Just about everything I’ve ever built has a heart on it somewhere.” Then he pointed out the hand-hammered sides of the hearts that matched the bars of the gate panels.
 
Iron flowers, painted in red, pink, blue, yellow, lavender and white, are arranged in two rows below each cross. The horizontal bars that hold the blossoms are woven around the vertical bars, again to enhance the decorative appearance.
 
“I chose the colors [for the flowers] at random, for what you might see in a flower garden,” Rick said.
 
Four flowers in a pattern of white, blue, lavender and pink are also attached to bars on each side of both crosses, a small bouquet between the iron hearts.
 
The gate closure is a strong stainless steel unit that won’t rust or freeze and should operate smoothly. Rick added another feature to insure low maintenance when he included grease zerks in the hinges. “They’ll go a hundred years,” he said.
 
The gate panels hang from square iron posts on both sides that extend nearly 12 feet high. At the top, the words “Coulee Cemetery” are framed between iron crossbars, embellished at the top and bottom corners with iron curls. “It gives it a little more character,” Rick said about those curls, then smiled. “And the birds like it. I’ve already had to clean it!”
 
An angel perches, centered, at the top of the entire structure, with gold wings, outstretched arms and a silver halo. Details of the body and gown were laser cut by Rick. “I made her blonde because of all the Norwegians around her,” he explained as he gestured toward the graves.
 
He based the pattern for this particular angel on a small piece of jewelry belonging to his wife. “We looked high and low to find some kind of angel,” he said. “I liked the welcoming arms of this one and the crystal design in the center of her skirt.”
 
A craftsman at heart
Rick was born in Minot, the son of Oscar and Erma (Quigley) Olson. “During the Dust Bowl years, my folks moved us out West,” he said, “but I came back here for grammar school.” He attended Stave School No. 3 and lived with Red and Shirley Quigley.
 
During those years, Rick discovered his affinity for blacksmithing work. “I was always intrigued by it,” he said, “and they had an old forge on the place. I used to play around as a kid.”
 
That “playing around” led to enrollment in trade school later where Rick developed his welding skills. He took a job with Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, Washington, and spent 33 years with the company as a blacksmith, where he actually designed and built the tools they used in their industry.
 
Rick retired from Kaiser about 10 years ago, but he didn’t step away from blacksmithing. He continues to work on projects at home, with two blacksmithing shops, a woodworking shop and a welding shop all fully outfitted at his home.
 
“He’s got two hammers, and one of those is a 500-pound trip hammer,” Karen said, “and he’s built his own furnace to bend iron.”
 
Rick smiled and looked up at the gate. “That’s so I can do things like those curls on top,” he said.
 
He estimated he had devoted about 80 hours to the fabrication of the new cemetery gate, with another 20 hours in design. “When you get a design set up, it goes together pretty good,” he said. “The most time was spent hand hammering everything.”
 
He shook his head. “There are thousands of hammer strikes,” he said, explaining that each of the four sides of each small bar had to be worked in small sections, then rotated to prevent distortion of the iron.
 
The idea for the project was suggested by Rick’s cousin, Bryan Quigley. Rick pointed to the old gate removed from the site and laying in pieces, with its bent wire panels and rusty castings. “Bryan asked me to build a gate to replace these things,” said Rick. “And if I make something, I make it to last. Everybody takes such nice care of this cemetery, I wanted to do something nice for them.”
 
He worked on the new gate in August and September, then built a set of racks for his 3/4-ton Dodge pickup and loaded the sections for the trip to North Dakota. “All this fit on there pretty well,” he said with a shrug.
 
The Olsons try to return to North Dakota every year to see family, and they also make time to visit the cemetery. A few years ago, Rick made new iron plaques for the graves of Civil War veteran Dennis C. Quigley and his wife Harriet Louise Quigley. He and Karen then had the graves reconsecrated with a ceremony that included military honors performed by an area VFW chapter.
 
“The old iron was rusting and running down on the headstone,” Rick said. “I thought it was kind of a disgrace to have rust running down on a veteran.”
 
Gift from the Olsons
The new gate was erected in place during the final week of September, as a gift from Rick and Karen. According to Rick, overall maintenance should be minimal. “Except maybe a paint job in a few years,” he said. “North Dakota weather is pretty easy on this paint.”
 
He claimed he was cutting back on his blacksmithing projects and that he wouldn’t likely build another gate like this one. But even as he and Karen were making plans to begin their return trip to Washington the next day, Rick was concerned about people moving the smaller “Coulee Cemetery” sign to the Bethlehem Church Cemetery at the request of church members and finding the right placement for it at the new site and getting the letters changed...and his list continued.
 
“When you’re a toolmaker,” he had said, “you’re pretty fussy about getting things straight.”
 
And that means even the place where an old sign will find new purpose or the flowers that decorate a rural cemetery through four seasons on the prairie.
 

Permanent decorations . . . Flowers and
Olson's trademark hearts flank iron crosses
hanging on each panel of the cemetery gate.
 
 

Angel adornment . . . Rick created and painted this
angel to reflect her welcoming stance, and admitted
he gave her blonde hair because of all
the Norwegians buried in the Coulee Cemetery.