Floyd B. Olson Biography

Born to poor Scandinavian immigrants in north Minneapolis, Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson had a checkered education, including one year at the University of Minnesota, a brief stint in the Industrial Workers of the World, and a degree from Northwest Law College. In 1919 he was named assistant attorney for Hennepin County; one year later, he became county attorney.

There, from 1920 to 1930, Olson took on the Ku Klux Klan and challenged the power of Minneapolis’s Citizen’s Alliance, earning strong support from racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and unions. A popular touch and oratorical gifts disguised a pragmatic streak that served him well.

Olson first eyed statewide office in 1924, when he left the Democratic Party for the new Farmer-Labor Party. He narrowly won the party’s nomination for governor but lost the race to incumbent Theodore Christianson. Olson did not run again until 1930, when he won by a landslide.

More rebel than radical, the savvy, popular governor spent his three terms pushing through legislation establishing the Department of Conservation, old age pensions, a graduated income tax, unemployment insurance, and public relief programs. He gradually shifted the Farmer Labor platform farther to the left as the Great Depression deepened. In 1934 he publicly declared: “I am not a liberal . . . I am what I want to be, a radical.” Yet when governing, he chose more moderate paths.

His response to Minneapolis’s 1934 Trucker’s Strike illustrated this moderation. In 1933 he successfully mediated a meatpackers’ strike in Austin but now, facing violent clashes between Minneapolis police and Teamsters, Olson failed to please both sides. He reluctantly declared martial law, alienating strikers and bosses. Torn between his allegiance to labor and his need to keep public order, Olson ultimately depended on federal pressure to force employers into accepting many of labor’s demands.

Facing gridlock in a legislature controlled by his opponents, Olson decided to run for higher office in 1935. Although ill, he began campaigning for U.S. senator but died from stomach cancer in 1936. Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans publicly mourned his passing.