During his youth, Dennis Olson raced the trains that sped on the Great Northern Railway through Osseo on his bike, pedaling as hard as he could to get to the station before the trains and watch them in fascination.
“You could tell when the big steam engines would be coming because the ground would shake almost like an earthquake, and that’s when I would start to ride,” he said, “Eventually, they went to diesel, so I would have to listen for the train to whistle before starting.”
Olson rediscovered the same wonder with trains when he joined the Northern Trackers Railroad Club in Crosslake six years ago when the club was created. He is now the president of the Northern Minnesota Railroad Heritage Association.
Olson believes his interest in trains began as a 10-year-old boy when his father gave him his first Lionel model train. That changed as he grew older.
“I discovered cars and girls and put my trains away,” Olson said, chuckling.
After graduating from Osseo High School in 1961, Olson attended St. Cloud State College and received his Bachelor’s degree in industrial technology. He continued his education at Bemidji State University to earn his Master’s degree in industrial education.
Olson was a high school teacher for 14 years as he taught students in south Chicago and Robbinsdale how to weld and maintain small engines and electronics. Then, he joined the company Carl Zeiss Meditec out of West Germany and created microscopes for three years.
“Zeiss at that time was the Mercedes-Benz of microscopes,” Olson said.
He soon founded his own company, Microclean, and retired 25 years later at Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake after having served 900 hospitals and clinics across five states.
“I had a wonderful time at my job,” he said.
Now, he stays active as a member of the Nisswa Garden Club and the Northern Trackers Railroad Club in Crosslake on weekends and Wednesday evenings, wearing a conductor uniform at times when showing curious onlookers the half-scale model of the William Crooks Locomotive outside of the club.
Among some of the Northern Trackers’ accomplishments are building a model track for residents of the Good Samaritan Society-Bethany and hosting field trips and visits for students and residents around the area.
“We go to schools and they come to us in the summertime to learn about the trains. It’s fun to watch the little kids because they have never seen anything like this,” he said,
“The only thing they see is a coal train going through Brainerd, which is a limited view of railroading.”
Having taught classes and turning 70 in August, Olson believes education is still important.
“Education has always been a part of my life. I think the main thing is to keep growing and keep looking ahead,” he said. “My wife, Joanne, and I do a 10-year plan and decide what to do in these 10 years.”
The Northern Trackers Railroad Club also has a women’s group that consists of the wives of some of the members. They plan events and outings for both groups.
“Really, the Northern Trackers has 80 members when you add some of their wives in. They play an important part,” Olson said. “We are thankful for them for setting up things outside of the club area. It’s fun to get together and let them put a face to a name. It’s important for them to be involved.”
He is also thankful for being part of the Northern Trackers Club and sharing with others what he has learned throughout the years.
“You encourage people to do things and bring things out of them that they didn’t know they had themselves,” he said, “That’s the fun part. It’s been a good life. I’ve enjoyed planning it and making it all happen.”