- Associated Press - Sunday, March 26, 2017

AURORA, Neb. (AP) - Don’t try telling Gene Gustafson that you can’t learn something new at age 74.

He might just carve up your archaic thinking.

Gustafson, now 94, has been making miniature, wooden, lifelike sandhill cranes for 20 years. You can find them in the gift shop at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center south of Alda, The Grand Island Independent (https://bit.ly/2mRu8gw ) reported.

“I went to a carving class at Grand Island Senior High when I was 74 years old,” Gustafson recalled. “My first project was making ducks - 14 different ducks that I’d seen on the (Platte) river.”

Gustafson brought the creations to what was then Crane Meadows Nature Center, where he met naturalist Eric Volden.

“He said, ‘How about making cranes?’ I told him the long neck scares me,” Gustafson said.

It didn’t scare him enough, though. He’s been creating the wooden cranes for about 17 years now.

“They are one of our best-selling items,” said Cheryl Jones, coordinator at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.

Gustafson is spending his Friday afternoons in March at the nature center, demonstrating his crane-making craft for anyone interested in his hobby. His first appearance was March 10.

Be careful, though. You might also get some fascinating stories from this self-described “retired hog farmer” or, as others might call him, “low-river rat.”

Gustafson currently resides at East Park Villa in Aurora, but still has a home in the community. His wife of nearly 65 years, Rachel, passed away in 2011.

He was born in Phelps County, but moved with his family to rural Hamilton County before he was 1 year old. He grew up and farmed there, a place where his Swedish ancestors settled back in the 19th century. His grandfather, A.G. Gustafson, farmed the land - “It had to have been in the 1880s,” Gene said.

Besides farming, his grandfather planted a grove of catalpa trees. He never knew it while growing up, but those catalpas would be a catalyst for his wood-carving hobby more than a century later.

One of Gene’s grandsons, Joe, still farms some of the land, which borders the Platte River. He remembers seeing sandhill cranes on his farm decades before the migrating birds became an international phenomenon.

“I always saw them on the river and I’d just watch them,” Gustafson said. “I’ve always had a natural interest in wildlife.”

That interest took him to the nature center, where he took his miniature sandhill cranes and also began volunteering as a guide.

“I served about 10 years as a guide, off and on, just in the mornings,” Gustafson said. “I would get up at 4:30 in Aurora. We’d have to be in the blind while it’s still dark.

“I always appreciated a sunrise on the Platte,” he added. “One morning nobody showed up for a tour, so I just went out by myself and watched the sun come up over the river.”

Gustafson’s Swedish heritage - his grandparents came to the U.S. from Arvika, Sweden - would fuel his wood-carving skills.

Before he began carving his hundreds of cranes, he created lots of Swedish Dala horses. A Dala is a carved and painted wooden horse that originated in the 17th century in the Swedish province of Dalarna.

“They are a traditional part of Swedish art,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson first began carving with balsa wood, which he purchased in Lincoln. Then the catalpa trees on his own family farm entered the picture.

“I began using catalpa in about 2000,” he said. “You can carve it wet or dry and it will never split.”

The foundations for Gustafson’s catalpa cranes are made of oak. He uses old wire coat hangers for the crane’s legs, and says it’s not easy finding the old hangers these days.

The entire crane-making project requires 27 processes, or stages, Gustafson said, from the first cutting of the wood to the final details. “I make about six or eight at a time,” he said, which take about a week to complete.

He uses a band saw blade that’s 109 inches long in his shop, located in his Aurora home. His primary finishing tools are a steel carving knife and a homemade sander, “something I concocted,” he said.

Besides sandhill cranes, Gustafson has been creating Noah’s arks for his grandchildren.

That means his hands will be busy for a while. Gustafson has 16 grandchildren and 21 “greats,” he said.

“The arks are 26 inches wide and hang on the wall,” he said.

All of Gustafson’s six children and their offspring have pieces of Gene’s artistry, in some shape or form. The children of Gene and Rachel Gustafson are Susan, in the ministry in Minnesota, as well as Steve (Aurora), Leanne (Grand Island), Linda (Michigan), Jill (Fairbury) and Andrew (Omaha).

“I find this very rewarding,” Gustafson said of his carving hobby. “I don’t know why I’m here, it’s nice to be doing something with my hands.

“It’s really nice to be doing something with my hands at 94 years old.”


Information from: The Grand Island Independent, https://www.theindependent.com

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