Minnesota Historical Society M-Flame Logo

Floyd B. Olson Biography

Life was hard during the Great Depression. Americans were desperate for a hero, a bigger-than-life figure who could save them from economic disaster in the form of plummeting agricultural prices, skyrocketing farm foreclosures, a severe drought, business failures, widespread unemployment, and labor unrest. Minnesotans found their hero in Floyd B. Olson. Even his detractors, who questioned his motives and quaked when he called himself a "radical," conceded that the twenty-second governor was a remarkable leader with a genius for inspiring hope during frightening times.

Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson was the son of poor Scandinavian immigrants who settled in north Minneapolis. His checkered education included one year at the University of Minnesota, a stint as a laborer in the Pacific Northwest, and a degree from Northwest Law College. In 1919 the young lawyer was appointed assistant attorney for Hennepin County and soon became county attorney, a position he held for ten years. By the time he was elected the state's first Farmer-Labor Party governor, Olson's reputation as a tough-talking man of the people was sealed, and his skills as a canny politician and radio orator were well honed. He used these qualities to appeal to the rural and, especially, urban poor with his rousing rhetoric while gaining the support of a relatively conservative legislature.

In each of three successive campaigns, Olson spoke more vehemently against "the failure of government and our social system to function in the interests of the common happiness of the people." After each election he urged more legislation to alleviate the Depression's devastating effects. His power and popularity helped make Minnesota's Farmer-Labor coalition the most successful third party in America's history.

Olson's death in office at age 44 stunned his supporters. They mourned the passing of their homegrown hero, who rose to national prominence but never forgot his ties and responsibilities to the common people of his native state.