Retired nuclear physicist from Park River makes, sells thousands of jars of chokecherry jelly for charity
PARK RIVER, N.D. — Ordean Oen, 90, steps carefully through the hip-high grass, grabbing branches as he goes to steady his footing on the rough terrain hidden beneath the brush along the banks of the Park River.
It's a hot August day and the chokecherries are nearly black, plump and prime for the picking. It's been a productive year for the native fruit, and Oen expects a good harvest.
"A light frost will kill the juneberries," he says. "But the chokecherries thrive. The chokecherries, you can depend on them."
He adjusts the pail hanging from the frayed leather belt wrapped around his waist and reaches high into the bushes to bend a heavy branch, making quick work of it as he uses two hands to strip the fruit from its stems. Drop-drop-drop, drop-drop, the bucket echoes in quick succession.
A nuclear physicist in "another life," the retired Oen has harvested chokecherries and other berries since 1992, putting up about 800 jars of jelly every summer. He gives a lot away to friends, but he also has raised more than $64,000 for the Park River Bible Camp. He has raised money for other charities as well.
"It's being useful, and I enjoy it, too," Oen said. "It's a communion with nature, and it's so peaceful out here. I pick the chokecherries and there's not a sound but the birds singing. I don't regard it as work. It's fun."
The Jelly Man, as Oen is known far and wide, makes his permanent home with his wife, Carol, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where he worked for years as a condensed matter physicist studying the effects of radiation on different materials. They winter in Mesa, Ariz., but Oen comes home to Park River about the middle of June each year in time for the berry harvests. Carol comes a bit later and together they attend the annual German language camp near Bemidji.
"She doesn't need as much North Dakota as I need," he says with a laugh as he takes a short break at his kitchen table. The walls are decorated with chokecherry art and festival posters from the different places he has visited.
Plenty to pick
There's a good variety of places to find chokecherries, and "I know them all here, upstairs," Oen says as he points to his head.
Seeded by his biggest competitors, the birds, the berries grow in abundance along streams, fence lines and ditches. Native Americans pounded the berries into cakes called wasna, and Lewis and Clark wrote of the food sustaining them during their journeys.
"They wrote it conquered their hunger, and it tasted pretty good, too," Oen said.
The berry can be tart to taste straight off the tree, but Oen says in his lifetime he's probably met only two people who didn't care for the taste of chokecherry jelly. And that might have had everything to do with the recipe.
As far as that goes, Oen pretty much has it down pat. The house that's been in his family for 92 years probably is as much a laboratory as it is a home.
A small shelf next to the sink holds about six different cans of repellant — mosquitoes and ticks are a hazard of the trade — and the pantry is filled with a variety of large stainless steel kettles and special contraptions meant to extract juice from the berries.
Twenty-five dozen 8-ounce Kerr jars are stacked knee-high in the living room, and a second pantry holds shelves of finished product. Mixed boxes of jelly are ready for sale — $5 a jar or $60 for a variety 12-pack.
"It's a pretty jelly," he says as he holds a jar of highbush cranberry up to the light.
There's also red hawthorne, pin cherry, sand cherry, gooseberry, riverbank grape, currant, wild plum, nannyberry and buffalo berry.
"It's all good," Oen says. "But chokecherries are my flagship. It's the most popular."
He also makes syrup and at least four different flavors of wine — chokecherry, prickly pear, plum and rhubarb — and a special chokecherry cordial he calls Purple Lightning. His artist cousin, Jonathan Fjeld, designed the flora and fauna labels for all the jelly flavors.
Getting it right
Half cook and half chemist, Oen knows just the right pH level to perfect it all. He ordered three special steam juice extractors from Finland to use in his operation. The extractor works somewhat like a double-boiler system but with triple pots and a hose connected to the center one.
Once the juice is liberated, Oen can release a hose clamp to pour the juice into steaming-hot quart jars. About 3 pounds of berries produce about 4 quarts of juice.
If that sounds like a whole lot of work, it's because it is.
"(But) when you're retired, there's ample time to engage in your hobbies," Oen says. So, he does, and this hobby takes about 32 hours a week.
Three days a week, Oen is up at 6:30 a.m. to pick about 11 gallons of berries in three to four hours. He goes until it "gets hot or I poop out."
The most chokecherries he ever picked in a season was 200 gallons (he had help with 20), but he averages closer to 80 to 100 gallons.
Each week, there's also about four hours of cleaning and 16 hours of processing to yield about 140 jars of jelly a week. But that's just the chokecherries. He also picks 10 gallons each of juneberries, raspberries and highbush cranberries and 20 gallons of plum grapes.
"It keeps me out of mischief," he says.
When he's not doing that, he's either tending to his large garden or going to Sunday dances at the American Legion in East Grand Forks. Polka is his second passion.
Oen says this year might be his last for large-scale jelly production, but he shows no signs of slowing down yet.
A 5-gallon pail sits full to the brim and ready by the stove. That jelly doesn't get made by itself.