30 years ago, Leonard Olson was climbing the corporate ladder and making a good living. But a health scare 16 years ago brought the Pomeroy, Iowa man to a turning point in his life. Now, he works by his own rules, at his own pace. In the process, he turns out some amazing wooden wonders.
What starts as a plain block of unfinished wood will be a work of art after Leonard works his magic. A keepsake from another time. Leonard makes kaleidoscopes by hand. Real ones.
"You'll start to see a little shine comin' up," Leonard says, as he applies sandpaper to the kaleidoscope taking shape on the spinning lathe.
These kaleidoscopes are unlike anything you'll find in a toy store today.
"Now, the next step is I let it sit for a day or two to get the evil spirits out of the wood," he jokes as he looks over the sanded and trimmed wooden kales tube. "I've got the greatest thing in the world going on here. This is what old guys that can't get real jobs have to do."
Leonard used to have a "real" job, as a computer programmer. "Yeah, I used to wear suits and ties and talk to vice presidents at Fortune 500 companies, which was fun while I did it," he said.
But Leonard decided to slow down after he suffered a heart attack at age 44.
"It was no great epiphany," Leonard explained. "The story would be so much better if I said the ceiling tiles opened up and the voices told me to start making kaleidoscopes, but that's not at all what happened."
In fact, it was a kaleidoscope from the hospital gift shop that his friends gave Leonard after his heart surgery that sent him on his new path.
"I did notice how doctors and nurses who had no business coming to talk to me were noticing, you know, coming to see that cool kaleidoscope," he said.
Today, Leonard's Kaleidoscope Factory is one of the few bright spots that remain in downtown Pomeroy, Iowa.
Leonard has an open-door policy. He enjoys having visitors stop in and many do from all over the United States. In fact, if you stop in, he might even help you make your own kaleidoscope.
For as old-fashioned and old-school as Leonard appears, he is a sharp businessman. He says there are two rules to marketing what he makes.
"Rule number one," he explains "the grandmas have all the money. Rule number two, the grand kids run the grandmas. All my money is in the grandmas' purses and to get it out, I've just got to make stuff the grand kids can't live without."
So Leonard also turns out wooden puzzles and trains, wine holders and something called dibbers, which Leonard explains are sticks for pokin' holes in the ground.
"And I make spurtles, which are like sticks for pokin' holes in the ground, but they're sticks for stirrin' your porridge," Leonard said.
Asked if there is a big demand for spurtles, Leonard laughs and says "Huge demand, huge. Actually, everything I make sells eventually."
Leonard says he's having fun doing what he's doing. "The money is nothin', but the living is way better. I never get hollered at for this stuff."
Guys that look like Santa Claus and make wooden toys are a magnet for media attention, and Leonard has had his share. A full-page spread in the Chicago Tribune and a write-up last summer in American Profile. When his story gets out, the orders come pouring in from across the country.
"This is not something I'd recommend to go make a living," Leonard said. "But to live a life, obviously it's a tremendous way to do it."
So Leonard gets to work turning out his next wooden wonder.
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