Above, from left, Cory Heun, R.J. Olmstead, Anna McCaslen and Lulu. The two men are holding North East Auto & Cycle’s new sign, which Dan Carpenter of Cut it Out Metal Designs fashioned. Photo by Jason Selby
R. J. Olmstead has owned North East Auto & Cycle since 2001. His father, Robert Olmstead, helped him get the business started, before he passed away from prostate cancer.
“I had an injury, and I’ve always been very mechanically inclined,” Olmstead says. He hurt his knee on the job as a welder for John Deere. “I’m good at looking at a component of your car and knowing how it should be built. I’m good at tearing things apart, putting things together and figuring things out.”
Olmstead’s father was a marine during the Vietnam conflict stationed in Japan. He worked as a mechanic on aircraft like the F-4 Phantom, and saw many of the dead and wounded during his job overseas.
“Most of Dad’s [help] was just guidance,” Olmstead says. “He wasn’t a super strict dad, but [he taught me] a lot of good values he learned in the service, that I still carry to this day. My motto is that if you can’t do a good job, don’t do it.”
Ironically, while his father helped him get his automotive shop on the northeast side of Corydon started, it was his father’s death that motivated Olmstead to put his heart into the family farm. He began row crop farming a couple of years ago.
“It was a bad time to start, because we’re in a recession, but I’m going to keep doing it, because I’m not going to fail. I might not have anything when I’m done, but I’ll never give up.
“Sometimes I think my farming, even though it’s stressful sometimes, is the way I wind down.
“Dad was in there with me all the time [at the shop]—of course he still worked for the county—he kept me focused on what I had to do. When he passed away six years ago from cancer, I focused in a different direction. I never was really into farming. He told me how I did so well running the machinery. Now I want to farm and still do my business.
“I don’t quit. I’m not a quitter. I can’t be. It just isn’t in my blood. I will not fail at anything I do. Failing just means that you give up.”
Olmstead graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1992. He and his wife, Autumn, have two girls together, Zoe, two-and-a-half years old, and Holland, 10 months old. They also raise Autumn’s little brother, Aaron Casey, who is 13-years-old and a seventh grader at Wayne.
Joan and Benny Davis are Olmstead’s aunt and uncle. Olmstead flies airplanes out of the hangers at Davis’ airstrip east of Corydon. A few years ago, Olmstead restored a 1941 Taylorcraft from the ground up in nine months.
“My uncle is probably the closest thing I’ve got to a father figure now,” Olmstead says. “A lot of the skills I’ve got in problem solving came from him, because that man can build anything.”
If Olmstead seems attached to the many people that stand by him now, it is only because he understands the meaning of loss.
In 1998, Olmstead came home from working at John Deere, and all the lights were on. His mom would check cattle in the evenings. As he was settling down in his room for the night, his father came to the door and told him his mother was dead. The weather was rainy and the lot muddy, and Olmstead carried his mother from the cattle lot into the ambulance, but by that time there was nothing he could do. It was a freak accident while she was doing the evening chores, and then she was gone.
Two years before that, on New Year’s Eve in 1996, Olmstead drove by a wrecked vehicle. He spoke with the crew at the scene, who told him there had been two fatalities. Later, he would find out it was Matt Selby and Todd Davis.
“That night, we were all together. [Matt] was one of my best friends. Todd Davis wanted to stay behind, but my girlfriend at the time wanted to watch the ball drop at midnight. So they stuffed everybody in the vehicle and took off. About 45 minutes later, I left, and when I came around the curve where they passed away at, I saw the pickup upside-down.
“I’m an only child. Losing my mom and my dad and my best friends—[now] everybody’s my family. If I get to know you very long, I start caring about people. I really value family.
“My shop—I believe in doing as good as job for everyone and trying to be fair and treat people with respect.”
Olmstead has more time now to farm with the addition of mechanic Cory Heun. He also employs Anna McCaslen.
“I never knew a stranger,” Olmstead says. “I like to talk to people. My business has been here 13 years. It’s not a super moneymaker, but it keeps my employees paid.
“About a month ago, I was actually thinking about shutting it down. But I would not shut it down because I have a customer base that depends on me. It’s one of those deals where I’m trying to balance business and farming. People think I’m shut down. People don’t even know where I’m at—I’m kind of separated from this business, because I farm 750 acres now. [But] I’ve got a good mechanic in there, I’ve got a good staff.”
Olmstead also farms hay. He tries to keep hay prices to local farmers reasonable.
“I’m not greedy. I’m not going to punish somebody because the market’s wrong. You’ve got to survive too, and I make enough money to take care of my kids and go on.
“Government rewards big things. I never wanted to be a farmer to be a rich person.”
North East Auto & Cycle provides various services for cars and trucks, and also works on motorcycles, ATVs and other off-road vehicles. They do some tractor repair. Olmstead does limited work on lawnmowers.
“I’ve got a $10,000 diagnostic system. We do everything.”
Olmstead has been around motorcycles and ATVs all his life; he does not see many shops around able to work on them. People come from as far away as Ottumwa for his service.
“We just try to do a good job, and treat everyone like they should be treated. I’ve never told anybody ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’ve told someone I don’t know what’s going on, but I need to figure it out.
“I had one truck that was giving us issues, and I finally told the guy to get a hold of somebody, and I told him where to take it—but you need to let me know what’s wrong with it. Every day, if you don’t learn something, you shouldn’t even be here. Dad ran a motor grader for the county for years, and he said everyday he learned something new.”
Olmstead also does mechanical work for the fire department and Wayne Community School District vehicles.
“There’s only a few people who are going to remember you,” Olmstead says. “If I get one person standing over my grave that says I was a good man, I probably did fine.”