Notable Norwegians: Floyd B. Olson

David Moe

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Painting of Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson by Carl Bohnen, 1937.

Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson was born November 13, 1891, in Minneapolis, Minn., the only child of a Norwegian father and Swedish mother. He entered the University of Minnesota in 1910. After one year at the university, he left Minnesota, working odd jobs in Canada, Alaska, and Seattle. During those hard years, he learned a lot about the hardships of the working class.

He returned to Minnesota in 1913 and entered Northwestern Law College night school and worked as a clerk in a Minneapolis law office by day. He received his J.D. degree in 1915, was admitted to the Minnesota Bar, and became a practicing attorney in Minneapolis and married Ada Krejci of New Prague, Minnesota. He became Assistant Hennepin County attorney, appointed to serve out the term of his predecessor who had been removed for graft. He was elected to the post in 1922 and re-elected in 1926. He earned a reputation for stern prosecution of corruption, won a case against the local Ku Klux Klan, and made himself a name as a friend of labor.

Olson entered politics in 1920 when he sought the nomination of the Democratic Party for the U.S. House of Representatives, but he failed to receive the Democratic endorsement. By 1923, he had come to the attention of local labor leaders for his prosecution of several members of the Citizens Alliance, and by 1924 he had secured the endorsement of the Hennepin County Farmer Labor central committee for governor of Minnesota. In July, he received the nomination of the state party; however, he lost the general election to the Republican.

By 1930, Olson had decided to seek the Farmer Labor party’s nomination for governor once again and received it by March of that year. Running on a “good government” platform, he became the first Farmer Labor governor in the state of Minnesota, carrying 82 of the state’s 87 counties. He defeated the Republican candidate by nearly 200,000 votes. He assumed the office of governor in January 1931. Many of his political goals were passed despite opposition from a conservative legislature throughout his career. He won re-election in 1932 and 1934. He planned to run for the U.S. Senate in 1936 and many people considered him a potential leader of a national Farmer Labor Party and a possible Presidential bid in 1940. However, none of these plans ever came to be.

In December 1935, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Since he was not told of his condition, he continued his plans for a bid for the U.S. Senate, making a public appearance at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis on June 29, 1936. In August, he returned to the Mayo Clinic and died there on August 22, 1936. He was 44 years old. He was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, where thousands turned out for his funeral, remembered as a “champion of the people.”

This article originally appeared in the May 19, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.