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Olson, Floyd B.

OLSON, FLOYD B.

Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson (November 13, 1891– August 22, 1936), governor of Minnesota, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the only child of Paul Olson, a railroad worker, and Ida Marie Nelson. He grew up in a poor area of North Minneapolis, an experience that influenced his later career in politics. After completing high school in Minneapolis, Olson attended the University of Minnesota for one year in 1910, but left for financial reasons and worked at a series of jobs in Alaska, the Canadian Northwest, and in Seattle. He returned to Minneapolis in 1913 and resumed his legal studies at night at Northwestern Law College. He graduated at the head of his class in 1915 and joined the law firm of Frank Larrabee and Otto Davies. In 1917 he married Ada Krejci, with whom he had one daughter, Patricia.

In May 1919, at the age of twenty-eight, Olson was appointed assistant county attorney for Hennepin County. In 1920 he succeeded William Nash as county attorney, easily winning reelection in 1922 and 1926. As the leading prosecuting attorney for the state's most populous county throughout the 1920s, Olson enjoyed high visibility and steadily increasing stature as an honest, hardworking public official who was not afraid to tackle challenging cases. He led an investigation into the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in 1923 and obtained several indictments against local Klan leaders.

Olson's interest in the welfare of the common person led him to join the fledgling Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association, which gained strength in the years immediately following World War I. Olson's impressive speaking abilities and his hard-earned reputation as someone who would represent common people made him highly attractive to the Farmer-Laborites. In the 1924 gubernatorial election, Olson lost by 40,000 votes to the Republican candidate, Theodore Christianson. Olson remained affiliated with the Farmer-Labor Association, but declined to run in the 1928 election.

With the onset of the Depression in 1929 Olson believed the Farmer-Laborites could win in the 1930 election in Minnesota. He ran a conservative campaign, emphasizing his interest in appointing people to office who would be nonpartisan and committed to the welfare of all Minnesotans. Although he won handily in 1930—and would be reelected twice more—Olson's party never controlled the Minnesota legislature. Indeed, throughout his three terms as governor, Olson constantly fought the more conservative elements in the Minnesota legislature. In spite of this, he signed a number of bills relating to expanding public works, regulating securities, encouraging cooperative enterprises, and conserving natural resources.

Olson greatly admired the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and during his last two terms as governor he sought to have his state's program mirror that of the New Deal. Toward this end he gained passage of a mortgage moratorium, a state income tax, allocation of fifteen million dollars in direct relief to the destitute, and congressional reapportionment. As his legislative agenda progressed, Olson became more enthusiastic about reform to the point that he declared himself a "radical" in a speech to the 1934 Farmer-Labor state convention. He soon realized that his rhetoric of radical reform was discomforting to many voters, and he abruptly toned down his speeches and advocated a more moderate approach for reform during his last years in office.

Although often mentioned as a possible third-party nominee for the 1936 presidential election, Olson had no desire to oppose Roosevelt, and instead began his campaign for the 1936 Senate contest. Late in 1935, however, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and in August 1936 he died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Standing six-feet-two-inches tall, handsome and blue-eyed with impressive speaking skills, Floyd Olson was a pragmatic politician whose words were often more radical than his deeds. Popular with voters throughout his political career, his reputation for personal generosity and honesty enabled him to work effectively with an often hostile legislature in passing numerous laws that expanded the role of state government in the lives of Minnesotans.

See Also: MINNESOTA FARMER-LABOR PARTY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jansen, Steven Donald. "Floyd Olson: The Years Prior to His Governorship, 1891–1930." Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1985.

Mayer, George H. The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson. 1951. Reprint edition, 1987.

McGrath, John S., and James J. Delmont. Floyd Bjornsterne Olson: Minnesota's Greatest Liberal Governor, A Memorial Volume. 1937.

Edward A. Goedeken

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