The coolest kids in town
By ANDREW MCGINN
Shawn Olson was a senior in high school the day he pulled his slammed VW Notchback alongside a freshman girl on a Southern California sidewalk and asked if she wanted a ride to lunch.
His 1961 Volkswagen sported cool rims and rode low to the ground — what they called “Cal Style” in the ’80s.
There was just one minor problem: There was only one seat, that being the driver’s seat. Olson’s car was still a work in progress, and he had nowhere for a passenger to sit except for on a milk crate.
She saw the potential and climbed in.
“She didn’t want me,” Olson, now 50, joked. “She wanted the car.”
Shawn and Jennie Olson have been inseparable ever since. After all, what’s not to love about a woman who can cut through metal with a plasma torch?
Their geography may have changed — they resettled in Jefferson at the suggestion of a family friend following Shawn’s near-fatal battle with West Nile virus — but they remain every bit California kids.
For years, they’ve been known throughout the area as “pickers,” those modern-day archaeologists who sift through the rusted relics of the last century and treat a Phillips 66 sign (the fewer bullet holes the better) with as much reverence as a ceramic serving plate found at Machu Picchu.
Now they want to be known as makers, customizing home furnishings and even jewelry like they once pimped out their rides in SoCal.
In their workshop, school lockers are reworked into entertainment centers. Old Ford and Chevy tailgates become the centerpieces of bars.
Jennie crafts jewelry out of vintage flatware, and uses the plasma torch to turn antique gas cans into grinning jack-o’-lanterns.
“They sell like hotcakes,” Shawn said of the jack-o’-lanterns.
Whereas the Olsons would have once hauled a trailer full of picked “junk” straight from local barns to West End Architectural Salvage in Des Moines — they’ve appeared on the TV show “West End Salvage” — they now part with far fewer things.
“Now one of my problems,” Shawn said, “is picking it and keeping it.”
A trailer full of recently reclaimed wood and metal, to Shawn’s eye, represents future bars, entertainment centers and lighting “in the raw.”
The Olsons’ 2016 acquisition of the Ross family’s former lumberyard on Adams Street will allow their business, Roadside Relics, to at long last have a public showroom.
Roadside Relics was originally located along Lincoln Way, in the building next to the historic train depot, but to the public’s frustration, it was little more than a staging ground for picks headed to West End Salvage.
The Olsons themselves were continually out on picks and never there.
For the same reason they didn’t relocate to the Square, they left Lincoln Way because they were conscious of becoming an eyesore.
“We drug so much junk in we always felt guilty,” confessed Shawn, who also serves on the Jefferson Fire Department.
Jennie said they felt particularly bad when a wedding reception would be held at the depot.
Now off the beaten path, they’re free to hoard until city code says they can’t anymore.
The Olsons hope to have the lumberyard presentable enough by April to start having public hours. Even then, the hours will likely be limited. They still have picking and repurposing to do.
The Olsons have always done some repurposing of items — making, for example, steampunk lighting — but they threw themselves into it a year ago when they took guardianship of their granddaughter Lilly, now 5.
“The picking has taken a back seat to raising a 5-year-old,” Jennie said, “but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“We need to be in a structured environment for this little girl,” Shawn added.
Shawn is reluctant to go picking without his partner and his extra set of eyes.
“The dynamics are just shot if I try going by myself,” he explained.
Their pace slowed so dramatically that Shawn even contemplated the worst.
“I thought about trying to get a real job for a minute,” he said.
Then again, growing up working-class in Southern California — the son of a hairdresser and a wastewater treatment plant operator — there wasn’t always the money to buy what friends had.
“If you wanted cool stuff,” Shawn said, “you had to build it.”
Shawn’s mom, Jackie, who relocated to Jefferson as well from California, finds herself impressed almost daily by what her son and daughter-in-law can make out of reclaimed objects.
“I’m amazed. Just amazed. I’m blown away. These kids are so gifted,” she said. “He didn’t inherit it from us.”
They do, however, come by it honestly.
Jennie’s dad was a “hippie biker” who would park his motorcycle inside their house.
Shawn’s grandfather owned a paint and body shop that employed a painter named Pat Santini. Santini’s son, Pete, went on to own a famous body shop to the stars in Orange County.
“I feel like I was born into it,” Shawn said. “If my grandpa didn’t think I was an annoying kid, I would’ve been in there sanding for him.”
The Olsons now have the difficult task of trying to keep up with trends, and even anticipate new ones, from their home base in Jefferson, Iowa.
“Staying ahead of the curve is hard,” Shawn said.
Yesterday’s Mission furniture is today’s midcentury modern.
For her part, Jennie has taken up macrame to cash in on a resurgence of bohemian style.
If you’re thinking about switching to industrial decor, do it quick. That window is closing.
Now, Shawn said, “Texas is a major influence on what’s happening.”
A fully intact Aermotor Co. windmill, picked recently from a local farm, may be the find of the year.
“Windmill blades are hot,” Shawn said. “They’re starting to reproduce them in China.”
A section of three metal blades, to hang on someone’s wall, can bring $180. A windmill, for what it’s worth, is made up of six sections of three blades.
“We have so many people that buy weird, quirky stuff,” Jennie said.
Sometimes, they don’t even have to alter an object.
Someone will inevitably want the railroad spike puller currently resting in a corner of their workshop.
A 1947 Schwinn bicycle, with original paint and an original speedometer, picked from the basement of a farmhouse in Boone, is the kind of thing the “American Pickers” guys go gaga over.
But the Olsons can also take an undesirable pick and spin it into gold.
For example, not all old neon signs are equal. A sign advertising an upholstery business might ultimately prove to be a tough sell.
Never fear, though, Shawn can take that old sign for Lunn’s Upholstery — its lettering almost completely worn off to begin with — and transform it by custom-painting the giant metal can to read Lunn’s Garage.
“The minute it says garage or gas station,” he said, “everyone wants to buy it.”
Custom car culture is what brought the Olsons together in the first place, and it’s how they’ll grow old together.
As Shawn noted, a lot of wives simply aren’t interested in this sort of thing.
“Not only is she fully into it,” he said, “but she can weld. She can use every tool in this shop.”
Together, they also can’t stop acquiring VW Microbuses from the ’60s and ’70s, taking them from sometimes rusted-out heaps to pristine time machines.
Those will only be sold when the time comes to retire.
“And that,” Shawn said, “will be our little house in Colorado.”