Honoring Floyd B. Olson, Minnesota’s 22nd governor


August 22, 2007 marks the 71st anniversary of the death of Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson. The state’s first Farmer-Labor Party governor, Olson died in office at the age of 44 in the midst of a campaign for U.S. Senate. One million Minnesotans took to the streets of Minneapolis to honor Olson on the day of his funeral, the Labor Review reported. The mourners included thousands upon thousands of labor union members, who marched from their union halls to the downtown Minneapolis Post Office, then marched together to Olson’s funeral at the Minneapolis Auditorium.

In the 1920s, as Hennepin County Attorney, Olson first became a hero to the state’s labor movement for taking on the business-backed Citizens Alliance.

Elected governor in 1930, Olson was re-elected in 1932 and 1934. He gained national prominence for intervening in the 1934 Teamsters strike and using the power of his office — and the state’s National Guard — to help settle the strike on terms that brought a victory for the workers.

A statue of Olson, erected in 1940, still stands today on Minnesota Highway 55 (Olson Memorial Highway) at Penn Avenue in Minneapolis. I’ve driven by that statue many times but June 28 stopped by for a closer look with my camera. I was saddened and dismayed to find the memorial unkempt and overgrown with weeds. Weeds at the base of the statue stood waist high. Weeds grew from the cracks in the concrete plaza encircling the statue. And a hedge bordering the plaza’s edge was seriously overgrown, blocking approaching sidewalks.

The scene said a lot to me. In the lack of maintenance of the Floyd B. Olson memorial, I saw physical evidence of cutbacks in state government services and state aid to Minneapolis under the administration of Republican governor Tim Pawlenty. (Pawlenty allies even have urged taking down the Olson statue and renaming the highway after Ronald Reagan).

In the overgrown weeds at the Floyd B. Olson memorial, however, I also saw a metaphor: Where once government stood as a champion for workers and workers rights, that legacy is now largely abandoned. We need to restore that legacy.

As a first concrete step, I made some phone calls to find out who was responsible for maintaining the Olson memorial site. My first call was to the Minneapolis Park Board. Not the Park Board’s responsibility, said Mitzi Patterson, administrative assistant, but she has received calls over the years reporting the site was overgrown. Next, I called the metro office of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT). “I have never heard of MNDOT being responsible, said Beth Petrowske, public affairs coordinator for the region.

Not exactly, I learned later. Meanwhile, someone at the Park Board directed me to contact the Minneapolis Public Works Department. Within a week, a crew of six was dispatched to the site and by 12 noon July 17 it was looking pretty good. For now.

The Olson memorial, it turns out, sits on the right-of-way for Highway 55, a state trunk highway. The City of Minneapolis contracts with MNDOT to perform “routine maintenance” for the state highways within the city limits, explained Mike Kennedy, director of transportation, maintenance and repair for the Minneapolis Public Works Department. But MNDOT hasn’t provided sufficient funding for the city to keep up with the task. “We have less crews to do the work,” Kennedy said. Plus, he added, maintaining the Olson memorial grounds really falls outside the city’s responsibility for “routine maintenance” of “roadside vegetation.”

“If there is an organization that’s willing to do some partnership [to take care of the site], we’re willing to talk about that,” Kennedy said. “That’s how things get done. We need help.”