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Willis Oscar "Bill" Olson

April 20, 1928 August 20, 2019
Willis Oscar "Bill" Olson
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Obituary for Willis Oscar "Bill" Olson

Willis Oscar “Bill” Olson was born in Grass Range, Montana on April 20, 1928, along with his twin sister, Hazel. The house the twins were born in was later moved to the ranch and used as a bunkhouse. His parents were Ole and Inga Selboskar Olson from Norway who proved up their homestead along with his grandparents, John and Synneva Olson, near Grass Range in 1897. He went home to the Lord in Lewistown, MT on August 20, 2019. Bill married Minabelle Klakken on September 30, 1951 in Grass Range. They were together for 53 years until he lost Minabelle to cancer in 2004. He remained on the ranch that he loved for 90 years. Bill attended Silver Brook School and the Annie Johnson School on Elk Creek, graduated from Grass Range High School, and attended Rocky Mountain College until he went home to assist his aging parents on the ranch. He remained there for the remainder of his life.

Bill grew up in the depression in a large family of 9 boys and 7 girls. His favorite place to sleep in the summer was in the barn with his brothers because it was cool. There was a shortage of shoes in the summer but they chose from hand-me-downs for school in the fall. He said that they had enough food and their neighbors all had the same problem so they didn’t feel deprived. They had a buckboard and team for transportation until the late 1930’s. Later, a new Buick had an automatic transmission but no one liked it because it was too hard to get up the hill, so a stick shift was preferred from then on. The arrival of a 4-wheel drive was welcome in the late 60’s.

Bill was a confirmed and active member of American Lutheran Church in Grass Range and Zion Lutheran Church in Lewistown. He had a deep appreciation for the wonder of God’s creation and the beauty and variety of the world around him. He was a humble man with a strong faith. Church attendance and living out his faith was important for himself and his family.

Bill loved his livestock and was a pioneer in developing A.I. in the state and introducing the use of exotic cattle breeds. His innovation was featured in an article in a state agricultural publication. He did his own A.I.’ing and pregnancy testing, as well as for the neighbors. With a goal of having a 500# steer calf, he studied bull books, and weighed calves one at a time to establish a database on individual cows & bulls with no computer to assist him, before it was commonly done. He believed the difference within a breed was more important than the difference between breeds, following up with visits to out-of-state feeders who bought his calves to see the results. He produced Club Calves and showed a pen at the Denver Stock Show. He enjoyed working with horses, saying that the biggest team he drove was six across. He broke many horses for both harness and saddle, starting in the 7th grade for $10/head. He acquired multiple broken bones and a separated pelvis in the process.

Bill recognized the importance of taking care of the land that provided for him and his family. He improved his property with soil and water stewardship and improved pasture efficiency with cross-fencing and sagebrush spraying before it was accepted practice. He was one of the first to try the use of sainfoin as hay. He also raised sainfoin for seed, doing all the cleaning himself to save money. As a new growing trend, the seed was valuable. He didn’t like farming, but also raised a small amount of grain until it was no longer profitable.

Bill saw changes from the use of teams of horses to modern farming equipment and 4-wheel drives. He enjoyed hard physical work. When he worked with the threshing crews he appreciated the challenge of seeing who could load wagons the fastest or lift the heaviest hay shock. He started stacking hay at 13, and he was very proud of his ability to create a good stack of loose hay, first with a pitchfork, then with a grapple fork. He really appreciated the round bales and the ease of handling them. He went from harnessing horses and loading and unloading a hay rack with a pitchfork to using a 4-wheel drive pickup with a hand lever to load and unload hay to feed cattle.

Bill saw many changes in 91 years! From hauling water to a hand pump, then an electric pump; from an outhouse to indoor plumbing; from an ice house and root cellar to a refrigerator; from no phone to a party line and then a cell phone; from chopping firewood to a forced air furnace. He didn’t have a television until they moved into the new house with a Dish in 1980. Through all the changes, Bill remained devoted to his family and his heritage. It was important to him that his home and the ranch were available to his siblings and their families because it was their heritage, too. He and Minabelle provided a haven for his brothers coming home from WWII.

Bill had a varied work history starting at a young age. Besides his chores of milking cows, caring for animals, and helping at home, he started working for some spending money when he was in the 7th grade and up. He broke horses, chopped and split firewood, trapped and skinned skunks, and did riding and field work for neighbors. Since he had 5 brothers in the military, his parents wanted him to stay home. He started his cow herd in 1946 with 10 heifer calves. Bill taught a lot of young people how to work and enjoy it, including his children, grandchildren, nephews, and hired hands. His positive attitude, sense of humor, and warm hospitality made him fun to spend time with, whether working or playing. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed hunting and fishing with family and friends. He weathered drought, grasshoppers, hailstorms, economic downturns, broken bones, and personal disappointments with a smile and a comment, “we have to go from where we are. It’s not what we asked for, but it’s what we’ve got”. He was a strong man with a gentle, humble spirit and love for life. His respect for others and hospitality never waned. Even with visitors in the hospital he was concerned that everyone had a chair and a drink of water and he did his best to visit.

Bill loved sports and competition. He was always very fit due to hard physical work. He played in the first basketball game he ever saw. They had no coach due to the war. He was an excellent runner, excelling in the 220 yard and 440 yard dashes. In his senior year his best time in the 440 exceeded the winning time at State. He was unable to attend the State Track Meet due to lack of transportation. He enjoyed playing cards and excelled at cribbage. Minabelle said he paid the grocery bill playing pitch at Marge Green’s café one winter. He was very lucky at cards.

Bill was very social and enjoyed time with family and friends. He and Minabelle were active members of their Pinochle Club, neighborhood gatherings, and church and community dances and activities. They enjoyed square dancing for awhile. New community members were often invited to their home to get acquainted. He and Minabelle enjoyed traveling after the children left home, including a trip to Norway to visit his parents’ family members and birthplace. His great sense of humor and ready smile allowed him to make friends wherever he went.

Willis was preceded in death by multiple family members, including his parents, his eight brothers, five sisters, and his wife of 53 years. He is survived by sisters, Hazel Thompson and Esther Seaholm; his children, Vonnie (Mike) Fleharty, Annette Fjeldheim (Rick Wright), Hank (Debby) Olson, Holly (Ken) Redman, and Nicki (Kim) Knerr; 17 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren; brother-in-law, Merril Klakken, sisters-in-law, Oleta Olson, Bonnie Olson, Juanita Heller, and Babe Olson; and numerous nieces and nephews. 

A Celebration of Life will be held Sunday, September 8th, 1:00 p.m. at the Grass Range High School Gymnasium. Inurnment will take place at the ranch later; cremation has taken place. Friends are asked to make memorials to CMMC Hospice, the Grass Range Community Endowment or the charity of their choice.  

Arrangements are under the care of Creel Funeral Home. Remembrances can be left at

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1:00 PM 9/8/2019 1:00:00 PM
Grass Range High School

High School Rd.
Grass Range, MT 59032

Grass Range High School
High School Rd. Grass Range 59032 MT
United States

Memorial Contribution

Central Montana Medical Center Hospice

408 Wendell Ave
Lewistown, MT 59457

Grass Range Endowment

401 7th Ave. S. Apt. 208
Lewistown, MT 59457

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