By Kevin Moore
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2017
In the fall of 2005 I had recently discovered a new book: Ingrained Legacy—Saskatchewan Pioneer Woodworkers 1870–1930, by Judith Silverthorne. In the hope it might shed some light on my new found collecting interest (handmade furniture from the Canadian Prairies) I stopped at a Regina bookstore on a trip to Calgary and bought a copy. Substantial in its scope, it profiled over 60 individual woodworkers, many of them immigrants, who had left their mark in the rural towns of Saskatchewan through their creative talents. After my initial read, I kept returning to the biography of one person whose story seemed to stick in my head. Ten years later, I would cross paths with this woodworker’s legacy in real life.
Olaf Linus Pearson was born in 1868 in Follinge, Sweden, and immigrated to Canada in the mid 1890s. Little is known about his early life in Sweden, but by the time he arrived in Canada he was already a skilled craftsman, carpenter, and metal worker. And then he started to build and create everything imaginable: churches, houses, furniture, caskets, fanciful trinkets, and nearly all of his woodworking tools as well.
Shortly after he arrived in Saskatchewan, “Ole” as he came to be known, found a job with the railroad as a lineman, and he eventually bought a quarter section of land in the Percival area. Pearson’s abilities as a carpenter and a skilled craftsman kept him in high demand and he rarely refused requests from anyone, if he felt that what they desired was achievable. A patient and careful artisan, he rarely missed an opportunity to be in his workshop. Early on, he built most of his creations from pine, his wood of choice. Later on he made use of local native species, such as birch and maple from the Pipestone Valley south of Broadview, Saskatchewan.
I remember reading through his biography and marvelling at the black and white pictures of his creations, and the endless variety of furniture, tools, and small boxes he made, even a miniature dog house, complete with gable end roof, doors and windows, and a dog’s face carved in low relief as part of the shingles. After a few phone calls, I finally found my way to some of Pearson’s work, which had been in a collection for almost 30 years. One of the first pieces I set eyes on was a small bench bed which had been made for his grandson. Built in the traditional form of the kokssofa, or kitchen sofa, this small version of its European counterpart had four front legs on the pullout base, a distinct Swedish characteristic. Complete with finials, scrolled arm rests, and applied carvings, it is reminiscent of the early Gustavian period of Swedish furniture, popular during the reign of King Gustav, and which lasted from the late eighteenth until the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is evident that Pearson had some kind of formal training in Sweden, which he applied to his work in Canada. He had few, if any, technical limitations. His ability to execute fine marquetry, using a wide variety of woods to decorate furniture and small boxes, was one of his many skills, as shown by his personal document box dated 1893. The thin and precise cuts he achieved to inlay his initials on the front of this box suggest the ease with which he practised his trade.
A strong understanding of woods and their characteristics was not his only talent. He made all his own hinges, keys, locks, and escutcheon plates, as well as numerous blades for his hand planes, and a myriad of squares and scribes. These were created in his work shop from sheet metals such as copper, tin, and brass, as well as hardened steel. All of his efforts and skills combined to create wonderful items. Even his simple tool boxes embody an amazing level of refinement, with multiple sliding compartments, fancy brass hinges, and eye pleasing details that are as functionally unnecessary as they are uncommon. The most distinctive, and common characteristic of Pearson’s work is that he incorporated some form of decorative carving into almost every piece he made. Some have intricate geometric designs of great detail, and others are completely abstract in form. He created strong imagery in his carving, especially with animal motifs. The leopard-like head carved into the handle of his cooper’s plane, and the ambiguous animal face carved into the backboard of his personal china cabinet, suggest an interest in superstition and folklore influential in Scandinavian traditions during this time period.
Adding hidden compartments to his creations in wood was also a passion for Pearson. He would patiently observe his clients as they searched for these secret openings, more than often having to point them out. Beyond his carved decorations, he embellished objects with designs in ink and pencil, or coloured drawings with dyed wax. His imagination never waned. Toward the end of his life a fascination with chicken heads crept into nearly every piece he produced, adorning the drawer pulls on furniture, acting as lid knobs, finials, or drawn as the main decoration on bentwood boxes. Even his outhouse door had a chicken head, with its beak as the latch. The surviving pieces of Ole Pearson’s work have attracted a diverse range of collectors who appreciate his skill and the eccentricities of his designs. Although he never worked with power tools, his creations are outstanding and exceptional among his peers.
Kevin Moore is a collector of Canadian Prairies ethnic furniture and hand-made objects, with a particular interest in the settlement period of western Canada and its material history.