Ben Olcott


Born on October 15. 1872. in Keithsburg. Illinois, son of Hiram Wallace, a banker, and Mary (Wilson) Olcott: a Protestant. Married to Miss Lena Hutton, sister of the wife of Os West. on December 25, 1912; father of Chester, Gordon and Richard. Attended grade school in Keithsburg and a business college in Dixon, Illinois; then worked as a clerk in Chicago. Moved to Salem, Oregon in 1891, where he roomed with Oswald (Os) West, governor of Oregon 1911-15, who was to become a major influence in his political life. For a decade and a half, Olcott savored the relative freedom of a bachelor in the far west. working as farmhand, bricklayer, hop picker. shoe salesman, sewer digger, bookkeeper, homesteader and clerk, and interrupting these more prosaic occupations to prospect for gold in southern Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Drove his own dog team 1.000 miles in winter up the Yukon and Tanana Rivers to Fairbanks in 1904, eventually working as a gold dust teller and buyer, then as branch manaSer of a bank. Back in Salem. Oregon. he worked for Os West in the State Land Office. and in 1907 was appointed by Governor George Chamberlain to represent the interests of the state when a Portland bank, in which the state had deposited substantial school funds, failed. In 1910, when the Democrat West opened his campaign for governor. Olcott, a Republican. ran his campaign headquarters. West appointed Olcott Secretary of State in April, 1911 and he was later elected to that office twice, in 1912 and 1916. He became Governor on March 3. 1919 when James Withycombe died in office. During his first summer in office, Olcott took extended trips in United States Army planes across Oregon. Washington, and California and persuaded the army to patrol the Forests of Oregon for fires by air during 1919-20. His interest in protecting the forests led to enactment of state legislation to protect forested areas along the highways of the state. Olcott asked the Oregon Legislature to prohibit Japanese persons from holding land in the state. Ironically, his opposition to nativism in another form led to his defeat when he ran for Governor in 1922. Fearful of lawlessness associated with a fast growing Ku Klux Klan in Oregon, he jeopardized gaining the Republican nomination by denouncing the Klan on May 13. 1922, just six days before the primary election. He won the primary by a few votes, but in the general election faced Democrat Walter Pierce, who advocated a Klan supported anti-Catholic Compulsory School Bill and who was also the K.K.K. candidate. Olcutt opposed the school bill; denounced the Klan; and lost the election 99,164 votes to Pierce's 133,392. Olcott left Oregon to become manager of the Long Beach, California branch of the Bank of Italy. In 1924 he became a director of the Oregon Mutual Savings Bank in Portland. He died in Portland on July 21, 1952, and was buried in Salem.

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1. Staresman [Salem] (April 15, 1911); 
2. Journal (Portland) (July 22, 1952); 
3. Oregonian (Portland) (July 22, 1952);
4. Charles H. Carey. History of Oregon 3 vols. (Chicago, 1922); 
5. Malcom Clark, Jr., "The Bigot Disclosed: 90 Years of Nativism", Oregon Historical 
   Quarterly LXXV (June, 1974). 
6. The Papers of Ben Olcott are on deposit in the library of the University of Oregon, 
   Eugene, and in the library of the Oregon Historical Society, Portland.


7. Political Graveyard


This material originally appeared in Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States 1789 - 1978. Volume 3 (Montana-Pennsylvania) Edited by Robert Sobel and John Raimo. Meckler Books, 1978. pp 1275. Copyright © 1996 Mecklermedia Corporation, 20 Ketchum Street, Westport CT 06880; (203) 341-2802;; All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.