Jerry Olson of Ham Lake consider himself an inventor, but not really a musician.
Nevertheless, Olson has impressed audiences over the years with his talent for building musical instruments.
Way back in 1968, Olson worked at the Roaring ‘20s Auto Museum in Brooten. The owner wanted something unique to bring to parades and asked Olson if he could make a musical instrument out of 68 car horns. Olson could do this.
Over the years, Olson has created various machines that could make music. He pulled together keyboards, music sequencers, speakers and even buttons from a phone to create unique multipurpose instruments. He programs song introductions into the music sequencer that can be activated later with the push of a button. He then plays the song melody by pressing touch tone phone keys on a retrofitted guitar.
He has purchased an old Yamaha keyboard guitar and a few Nintendo Wii guitars that he takes apart and re-assembles to make his own unique instrument. Between the introduction and the melody, there may be a few different electronic instrument sounds going on.
In November 1988, Olson had a 12- by 9.5-foot machine that could make electronic guitar, bass, drums, saxophone and trumpet sounds. his talent attracted the interest of local cable access and he recorded four videos that month.
In February 1989, Olson was soldering heating coils in a Spring Lake Park School District classroom when he fainted, hit his head and broke five ribs and his clavicle. his breathing has been very labored since then. He heard that he may have had a heart attack or a stroke.
After the accident, Olson was in Unity Hospital’s intensive care for 14 days. He was then transferred to North Memorial Hospital for about 11 months of rehabilitation. He still has difficulty breathing and he cannot hold a full plate of food because his two thumbs cannot grip anything much heavier than an empty plate. He is able to play his instruments with eight of his 10 fingers, however.
Olson continued to work as a maintenance specialist in the Spring Lake Park School District until he retired at the end of June 1999. During his 29 years in this school district, he repaired anything that needed to be fixed, including band instruments.
Olson continues to help others with repairs, according to John and Alice Ganter, who are members at the Ham Lake Senior Center and friends of Olson. Senior center members bring in their telephones, lamps, radios, coffee pots and various household items that have stopped working and Olson fixes them. He even gave the Ganters a useful tip for catching a mouse.
Olson volunteers many hours at the senior center, the Ganters said. He is always there when the doors open in the morning. He sets up the chairs for the exercise classes. He makes coffee for the exercise classes, card players and for lunches. He also helps set up tables and serve lunches.
In 1991, Olson created a different unit and performed for the Spring Lake Park School District and once again was broadcast on television.
He later made machines that he brought to his 50th class reunion in Glenwood in 2006 and his 55th class reunion in 2011.
More recently, he brought a smaller and lighter electronic musical machines to the Ham Lake Senior Center for the center’s birthday party for people 80 years and older and for a Halloween concert for kids from McKinley Elementary School. his goal is to start playing at nursing homes as well.
According to the Ganters, Olson plays piano beautifully, although he cannot play for too long because of nerve damage in his shoulder.
Olson has also built tiny music boxes. one looks like an old vinyl record player and another looks like an upright radio and record player.
“I’m an inventor. I don’t claim to be a real good musician, but I like to entertain,” Olson said.
Eric Hagen is at