When 80-year-old Jean Parson sees a piece of cardboard, a popsicle stick, a paper clip or even a pop can, he can envision great detail in making anything from antique tractors to baby grand pianos — treasures that fit right in your hand.
His talent first surfaced when, barely a 10-year-old, he made what seemed like countless toy tractors by hand for two younger brothers while growing up on the family farm some miles north of Braham. Into his teenage years, Parson refined his craft, especially during the time when he couldn’t get out of bed due to rheumatic fever.
And Parson’s hobby continues to keep him busy today, as evident by his growing collection of model farm equipment and buildings inside his room at Ecumen senior housing in North Branch.
“I’m not done growing up yet,” smiled Parson while holding his newest creation, a baby grand piano made of cardboard and other everyday materials concealed by a coat of black paint. “See the little bench there? It’s like the one Victor Borge used.”
His eye for detail can also be found in his model bobsled complete with hitch for a horse. A wooden piece whittled by Parson’s pocketknife, it was the first model he made at Ecumen.
“The tough part was getting it to steer, so I used popsicle sticks,” he described. “My dad plowed snow with something like this.”
Many of Parson’s creations are likenesses of what he remembers on the farm or community where he grew up. There’s the side delivery rake, combine, hay loader, Ford tractor, seed planter and a barn that underwent an expansion project. Other creations simply come from his imagination.
No stranger to humor, he says his family lived between the “northern twin cities” – that is, Brunswick and Grasston, nearly 20 miles north of Cambridge. “I was born farther south than that, though, in a house just west of Braham,” said Parson, born in 1932.
Following World War II, Parson recalls the cast iron toy trucks that his cousins played with during family visits in Iowa. Built to last, the toys did have a weakness, however, as the wheels wouldn’t stay on after a week of playing.
So Parson, who was not even 10 years old, started making his own toy trucks and tractors for his younger brothers. And he got pretty good at whittling away on wood from apple boxes and peach crates with his trusty pocketknife.
“I made a new tractor a week because they were always wrecking them,” said Parson, who didn’t mind the job for his brothers. “I’d make them to midnight.”
Later in life, he created a hand-sized organ — like the one his family used to have — and a roll top desk with the roll part made of cardboard so it can move up and down like the real thing. From bottle caps to more popsicle sticks, he uses what’s available.
Parson finds great reward in sharing his hobby with family, including wife Lois, son Mike and daughters Sheryl and Kia. And they and relatives appreciate his work in return. He’s obliged requests to create things such as model pianos, with all the correct detail of course, for those with musical interests.
Yet there is one particular creation that Parson won’t part from: a model of his father’s 1935 Allis Chalmers WC tractor, complete with cultivator, which he put together and painted orange 64 years ago. “It’s the first one I decided to make to keep,” he admitted.
A resourceful craftsman, Parson is perhaps more of an artist whose handiwork has been described as “touching, fascinating, special, personal, simple yet beautiful“ to friends and family including his nephew Gaylen Bicking of Rice, Minn.
For Bicking, he appreciates his uncle‘s ability to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary by using everyday materials. “You don’t see those people any more,“ he said of the natural craftsman. ‘It’s hard to put into words.”
What he can put into words, however, are the fond memories he has of being a South St. Paul boy visiting uncle Jean’s place in the country where there were two farms: a real one where uncle mentored nephew and a miniature version in the attic where imagination was met with imagination.
“I would wonder, ‘what tractor should I use to pull this plow,’” recalled Bicking of how his boyhood self played with his uncle’s models during summer visits on the farm. “I was a city slicker and a farm boy both. It was the best of both worlds.”