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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,626

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This is the grave of Ben Olcott.

Born in 1872 in Keithsburg, Illinois, he grew up out there and then moved to Chicago after high school. In 1891, he decided to head to Oregon and ended up in Salem. There, he became roommates and buddies with Oswald West. They would team up to become a dominant force in Oregon politics by the 1910s. Now, in these early years, Olcott had a dream–he wanted to strike it rich with a big bonanza mining discovery. So even though he had professional skills, he would split time between working actual jobs and traveling to random places around the West for the big strike. By 1904, he was up in Alaska. It was up there that he finally figured out the game. See, after driving some dogs for 1,000 miles to Nome in the middle of winter, which sounds like a scenario to make one rethink life choices, he needed a job. He got one in a gold bank, basically a place where the miners would bank their gold. He realized that the way to make money was to do off the miners. Took him long enough. He ended up making a pretty penny up in Alaska.

By 1909, West was heading up the state’s Land Office and he got in touch with Olcott and asked if he wanted to move back to Oregon and take a job under him. Even though West was a Democrat and Olcott a Republican, they were best friends and so Olcott said yes. Now much wealthier and with more experience than he had earlier in life, he became an important Oregon political insider. George Chamberlain, then governor of the state, appointed Olcott to a position to investigate what the heck happened to a failed Portland bank where the state had stashed a bunch of its school funds, which of course they lost completely. He did a good job with the investigation and gained a reputation of being competent and relatively honest, not a low bar in the Gilded Age.

In an era unimaginable today, when West ran for the governor’s office in 1910, he asked Olcott to run his campaign and the latter agreed, even though they were in different parties. West won and then in 1911, the state’s Secretary of State died in office. So West appointed Olcott as his replacement. He would win his own term in the office in 1912 and then another term in 1916.

In 1919, then governor James Withycombe died in office. Under Oregon law, the Secretary of State is first in line of succession. So Olcott became governor. Olcott basically continued Withycombe’s agenda, particularly in building the state a decent set of roads. He also started the idea of leaving up the trees next to roads so that people generally wouldn’t have to see the damage of logging and just have pleasant drives. In 1919, no one really cared about the damage of logging, but a half-century later, these buffers would become controversial, as environmentalists rightfully condemned the timber industry and government agencies for using them to cover up their real activities in the forests.

Then we get into the issue of race. This is a good moment to remind everyone of the ubiquity of racism in American life and the pointlessness of looking at a single issue as deciding whether someone was a good person or not. There’s no better example of this than Ulysses S. Grant, who went from underrated to horribly overrated in about 5 minutes in 2014 based on his support for an aggressive Reconstruction. That’s true enough, as far as it goes, but it ignores how Grant himself didn’t actually use the resources of the government nearly as aggressively as he could of, it ignores Grant’s own deep anti-Semitism, and it apologizes for the very real corruption in his administration. The short version of Grant is that he’s really complicated and there’s some things he did well and some things that are really, really bad and focusing on a single issue doesn’t help us understand him much.

I go into that long digression because Ben Olcott was such a man. On one level, we can look at him really positively. During his time in the governor’s office, the Ku Klux Klan rose as a national power. Oregon was one of its strongest states, along with Colorado, Indiana, and Texas. Not exactly what you think of when you think of the KKK. What the Klan really became was an organization for little Buddy Garrity Republicans, except in 1920 they were Buddy Garrity Democrats, to band together to eliminate all the people they hated–Blacks OK sure, but mostly Jews, Eastern Europeans, suffragists, basically all the hated people who seemed to be threatening their position as white middle-class men. Plus the fraternal organization fun of it.

Well, Olcott was horrified by the KKK. He openly denounced it and refused to accept any assistance from it as he ran for his own term as governor in 1922. He paid the price too. He did win the Republican nomination, but lost to the KKK-supported Democrat Walter Pierce.

So we might think, wow Olcott was brave. And sure. He also hated the Japanese and pushed hard for an Oregon law barring property ownership by any Japanese in the state, of which there were a lot. I think it’s worth noting that just because you thought the Klan was outrageous and horrible doesn’t make you someone remotely opposed to racism. It just made you opposed to a particular brand of racism.

After his defeat, Olcott just went back into his banking. He worked in California for a bit, but moved back to Oregon and managed a bank in Portland. He lived there until his death in 1952, at the age of 79.

Somewhat amusingly, although Oregon has a very good online encyclopedia run by the Oregon Historical Society, Olcott doesn’t even have an entry. You can however read his Proclamation against the Ku Klux Klan from 1922 if you care.

Ben Olcott is buried in Mount Crest Abbey Mausoleum, Salem, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other governors of the 1920s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Pat Neff is in Waco, Texas, and William Ellery Sweet is in Denver, Colorado. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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