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Twentieth Century Radicalism in Minnesota Oral History Project: Interview with Orville E. Olson
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION: Orville Olson was born in 1908. His father was a worker in the Minneapolis post office, and both parents were of Norwegian decent. Orville grew up in Minneapolis and started to study at the University of Minnesota, before the Great Depression forced him out of school. When the New Deal relief programs began, Mr. Olson applied for a job as a relief administrator. He worked in Pennington, Swift, Kandiyohi, and St. Louis counties under the State Emergency Relief Administration and Works Progress Administration. Here he gained first-hand knowledge of farm conditions and an acquaintance with labor leaders in Duluth and on the Iron Range. Ultimately, he was appointed director of the WPA for Hennepin County. Politically he found himself in an odd position. Although secretly a Socialist Party member, he had to be sensitive to the maneuverings of the fractured Democratic Party - which was the party of the president, and therefore in a position to hand out federal patronage jobs - and the directions of the stronger Farmer-Labor Party, which led the state government. In 1937 this position finally became untenable, and Mr. Olson threw in his lot with the Farmer-Laborites, becoming the director of personnel for the state highway department under Governor Elmer Benson. Because his job was a key patronage position, Mr. Olson became well-acquainted with Governor Benson, and their political lives intertwined for the next decade. After the defeat of the F-LP in 1938, Mr. Olson served for several years in the National Youth Administration in Washington, D.C., and then in the merchant marine during the war. He kept in close touch with Benson, however, and advised him in the merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties (1943-44). Shortly after that, Mr. Olson returned to Minnesota and helped to organize the Independent voters of Minnesota, which he headed until 1948. In that year he ran Henry A. Wallace's presidential campaign in Minnesota, while Benson chaired the national, effort. After Wallace's defeat, Mr. Olson effectively left the political field. Because of his radical associations, he had difficulty keeping a job in Minnesota, so he moved to Los Angeles. At the time of the interview he was still living there, in retirement. Mr. Olson was married and had five children. His marriage ended in divorce. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Job-hunting during the depression. Administration of work relief programs in rural Minnesota, early 1930s. Impressions of Victor Christgau. Description of the factions within the Democratic Party, and the roots of the eventual split in the Farmer-Labor Party, 1930s. Impressions of Floyd B. Olson. Opinion of George Lawson. Patronage jobs in the highway department: pressures to hire and fire based on party affiliation; role of highway department employees in building the Farmer-Labor Association; division of patronage between the Democrats and Farmer-Laborites; bribery by contractors. Anti-Semitic climate in Minnesota, late 1930s. Elmer Benson's efforts to broaden the base of the F-LP and move away from the tripartisan appeal of Floyd Olson. Relations between Benson and leaders of organized labor. Extent of communist influence in the F-LP, and upon Benson. Assessment of Roger Rutchick's role in the Benson administration. Relationship between the Benson and Roosevelt administrations, and between the Benson administration and the F-LP congressional delegation. Impressions of the Benson-Petersen feud in the F-LP, 1938. Factors contributing to Benson's defeat in the 1938 elections: his stand on the Spanish Civil War; failure to build a broad enough coalition with labor; maverick spokespeople for the F-LP; the recession that year; Benson's personality; newspaper opposition. Merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties. Make-up and goals of the Independent voters of Minnesota. Assessment of the Farmer-Labor Party's achievements. Impressions of Abraham Harris. COMMENTS ON INTERVIEW: At the time of the interview Mr. Olson was not healthy, and his strength clearly waned as the interview went on. There is another interview with him, conducted some five years earlier, by Steven Trimble and Thomas O'Connell, also in the MHS collection. The researcher is encouraged to consult that one as well. There were several interruptions, as Mr. Olson needed to rest. These have been edited out of the transcript. RESTRICTIONS ON USE: Interview cannot be quoted directly for publication.
2 hours sound cassette
27 pages transcript
Content Category: sound recordings
Content Category: text
01:32:08 running time
Interviewee: Olson, Orville E.
Interviewer: Ross, Carl
Made in: Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, United States
|Holding Type||Oral History - Interview|
OH 30 (Library Call Number)
AV1990.228.73 (Accession Number)
MHS Library Catalog
Oral History - Project, MHS Collection, project: 'Twentieth Century Radicalism in Minnesota Oral History Project'