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Minnesota prankster makes waves with crop circle joke
By Laurel Druley
Minnesota Public Radio
August 23, 2002

The movie "Signs", based on the crop circle phenomena, has become a box office hit of the summer. Since its premiere, a Minnesota prankster has received a lot of renewed attention. More than two decades ago, Waterville resident David Olson created what's believed to be the first crop circle in the United States. Since then people have discovered thousands of crop circles around the world. When FBI investigators and researchers visited his circle in Lake City, Olson kept his hoax a secret. He didn't tell anyone for seven years.

David Olson
David Olson made what's believed to be the first crop circle in the United States in 1979. He kept it a secret for seven years. Olson shows the post stamper he used to create "landing gear."
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

It was 1979. David Olson had overheard his adult nephew Curtis talking at a family get together about UFOs and what he would do if he ever saw one. The Olson family often played practical jokes on each other. David Olson came up with a scheme he says put the little town of Lake City on the map. Olson says the tools could be found on anyone's farm.

On that sticky night in September he strapped burlap sacks to his feet so he wouldn't leave tracks and headed into the cornfield.

"After I got to the edge of (Curtis') field road I pushed the stake into the ground," Olson explains. "I hung onto to the string, tied one end of twine to the stake and started stepping the corn down. And voila, after a few minutes you got a perfect circle about 30 feet across."

Then he made a second circle and singed the leaves with a butane torch. He even went so far as to grind up radium from his watch with a mortar and pestle. He mixed the radium with dirt and sprinkled it in the center of each circle.

Coincidentally, Olson says, on the same night a police officer drove into a ditch and reported seeing a flying saucer about a mile from Olson's circles.

Crop circle
An example of a crop circle.
(Photo courtesy of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal)

The next day, when Olson's nephew discovered the formation, he called his friend who was a deputy sheriff. Olson says the deputy came out to the farm and detected a radioactive substance with his Geiger counter. Then word spread quickly. And suddenly Curtis Olson's farm was swarming with reporters and police officers.

"There were barriers, 'Do not pass beyond this point,'" Olson recalls. "There were cop cars. There was a CBS sound truck. There were people walking around in uniform and my heart sank. I thought, 'oh my God, I'm going to go to jail for this one.'"

So Olson remained quiet. He waited for seven years for the statute of limitations to expire. He worried he'd face criminal charges or have to pay for the cost of the investigation. In the meantime, FBI agents and paranormal activity researchers investigated. Reporters and camera crews also visited the site. Olson's nephew told reporters he believed they had been "visited."

In 1986, Olson decided enough time had passed for him to fess up. He read about a professor at the University of Minnesota studying the paranormal and the so-called "Lake City landing." So Olson sat down with the professor and a Pioneer Press reporter and told them his story. Olson was surprised to see his confession on the front page the next day, and his family was even more shocked.

"It isn't that I don't believe there is intelligent life out there. I believe there is. But I don't think it's going to manifest itself in a cornfield."

- David Olson

"They were flabbergasted. They were upset. I think it was such a big deal because I revealed a hoax of what a lot of people believed was a landing of flying saucers. The biggest believer was my nephew. I didn't mean to make fun of him but I think he took it that way. He hasn't talked to me in almost 23 years," Olson says. "It isn't that I don't believe there is intelligent life out there. I believe there is. But I don't think it's going to manifest itself in a cornfield."

Olson's nephew Curtis, who now lives in Montana, was unavailable for comment. Olson says the rest of his family can now laugh at the incident.

"They want to believe in flying saucers. It's harmless. It's fun," Olson says. "You look at a newspaper today and you want to cover one eye so you don't see all the bad news at once ... suicide bombers, children abducted ... then someone comes along with a story about flying saucers. Well, it's almost a relief."

Lake City Sheriff Rod Adams, a deputy sheriff at the time of the incident, says there's another logical explanation for the circles.

"They were caused from the spillage of shelled corn from the year before," he explains. "What happens then is it doesn't do well. It's not a hybrid, like the corn they plant. One of the Olson's has come forward and admitted to making them. In my mind that's probably a possibility."

David, Mary and William Olson
David Olson stands with his son William and wife Mary on their farm in Waterville. William, 12, says his Dad's crop circle is cool, and he can't wait to tell his friends at school about it.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

Most crop circles are hoaxes. According to Colin Andrews, the scientific consultant for the movie Signs, 20 percent of crop circles remain unexplained. Andrews says there's magnetic activity involved. Other scientists explain they're weather-related. And some people believe extraterrestrials caused them. But Olson says they're all hoaxes.

"They didn't find mine," he says. "They didn't understand what I had done. And if I hadn't come forth it would still be unexplained."

There's actually an International Crop Circle database. Since the movie was released, more than 20 crop formations have been reported. Some circles date back to the 1950s. Many are simple circles, like Olson's, while others are elaborate designs. Many Celtic-inspired formations appear near Stonehenge in southern England.

Olson's wife Mary was the first to know Olson's secret.

"I think it's hilarious," she says. "It's David all the way through and through. It's like his icing on the cake of his practical joking through the years."

She says initially she was worried. But now realizes it's harmless.

"I told Mary this is going to haunt me for the rest of my life," Olson says. "I told her that 14 years ago. And I don't think I'm wrong."

But Olson also says he's enjoying the attention. Olson, who turns 60 this year, says he's retired from creating crop circles. But he does plan to get a mohawk haircut later this year.

More Information
  • International Crop Circle Database
  • Connect with other crop circle enthusiasts
  • Preview the movie Signs
  • Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal