Elmer Benson

The McGowan-Nolan Family Page

A Political Life, Part II, by Martin McGowan Jr.


In the course of my political career, I met many interesting people. The first I want to mention is Elmer A. Benson, a United States senator for a brief period, then the last Farmer-Labor governor of Minnesota and my father's closest personal friend. He was a man I feel was greatly misunderstood. His temperament probably had much to do with that.
It is difficult to visualize him in that role, but in high school Elmer Benson was the quarterback on the Appleton high school football team. His military service during World War I was done overseas in France after he dropped out of Law school at the University of Minnesota. After the war he and my father became charter member of the Appleton Post of the American Legion. This eventually put Benson in an unusual position. The Legion was always a strong backer of military power while Benson opposed any military buildup. He considered that a waste of funds and preferred peaceful negotiations as a means of keeping the peace.

Benson became a small town banker and looked the part. He wore a dark suit, had his hair slicked down and combed back. His round, silver-rim glasses added to his conservative appearance. He became cashier of the Farmers & Merchants State Bank in Appleton, an institution that occupied half the bank building. The other half was occupied by a men's clothing store in which Benson had interest with E. W. Pederson. Eventually the clothing store moved to another location and the bank took over the vacated space.

When Floyd B. Olson was the Farmer-Labor governor of Minnesota, and a rising political star some mentioned as a candidate for president of the United States, he tapped Benson to be state Securities commissioner. After a brief tenure in that post, Benson was moved to the office of Banking commissioner.

Benson was a fiery orator who also became a more notable figure in the Farmer-Labor party. He was being groomed to run for governor with the understanding Gov. Olson would run for United States senator. About a year before the election of 1934, the incumbent Republican United States senator, Thomas Schall, who was blind, was struck by a car while crossing a street in Washington, D. C., and killed. That left a vacancy which Gov. Olson filled by appointing Benson to the vacancy to fill out the year remaining in the term. There was an understanding that Benson would come home and run for governor and Olson would be the candidate for senator as originally planned.

That was not to be, however, because fate stepped in and Gov. Olson died of stomach cancer. I can recall being at the Swift County fair in Appleton taking photos for our newspaper when the master of ceremonies for the stage show came out and announced Gov. Olsonís death. Benson ran for governor and was elected by the largest margin recorded to that time. Another candidate was found for the senate race who also was elected as the Farmer-Laborites reigned supreme in the state.

    In one of our interviews, I asked Benson about his brief senate term. He said his seat on the senate floor was next to one of the senators from Missouri, Harry Truman. Benson averred there was nothing special about Truman. He was quiet and went about his business without much fanfare.

He also said he established a relationship with President Roosevelt. Since the Democratic party was so weak in Minnesota the federal government worked with the Farmer-Labor administration and counted on the party to assist the Democrats in national politics.

Bensonís term as governor was marked by controversy. One charge was that he had Communists in his administration. During one of two lengthy interviews I had with him in retirement I asked Benson about this charge. He said there may have been some Communists in his administration, but he felt these were good progressive people. The times were different then, with depression rampant and unemployment at a high level. The times called for drastic measures, Benson said, and he advocated some.

Anti-Semitism was strong in the Twin Cities at that time also and there were some Jewish men in high places in the Benson administration. Abe Harris was editor of the Farmer-Labor Leader, the party publication and Roger Rutchick was Bensonís top aide, the keeper of the gate. Anybody who wanted to see the governor had to get past Rutchick and often that was difficult to do. Same of Benson's home town friends who thought they could gain instant admittance to the governorís office based on past associations, found the door barred. This created some hard feelings back in the home town. I asked Benson about this issue and he said these people were good administrators and there had to be some control over who got to see him.

Gov. Benson did remember our family when he was making appointments. He named my uncle, F. R. (Pat) McGowan state printer. That was a position where contracts for printing state letterheads, forms, maps and various other forms were awarded. The work was passed around, generally to friends, so, long as the prices were not out of line.
This led to a problem for my father and two of his brothers. A third brother, Allen E. McGowan, was manager of the Minnesota Editorial Association, now the Minnesota Press Association, the organization of state weekly and small daily newspapers. These papers also did some commercial printing. At one time the allegation was made that my uncle Pat had a cozy arrangement passing out state printing to his two brothers, but the allegation was never proven.

My mother died when I was 18 months old and my father remarried when I was 13. He married Elizabeth Kelly, who was my music teacher in the fourth and fifth grades. Gov. Benson named my stepmother's sister, Evelyn Kelly, to be his secretary when he first went into state government.

Two incidents stand out when I think of Elmer Benson. One is a political matter And the other is personal.
The political point came when Benson tried to take our Swift County DFL party organization into his newly formed Progressive party. This was in the 1948 presidential election when Henry Wallace ran as the Progressive patty nominee.
Benson had an ally in this effort in James Youngdale, the DFL county chairman. I was the party secretary. In fact Benson had nominated both of us for office in an earlier campaign year. The county convention was to be held in the county courthouse in Benson. I knew it was going to be a contentious convention. Benson did not like to drive a car and was a terrible driver. He was the kind who speeded up an curves and slowed down on the straight-away. There is a story that one time in California he damaged a courtesy car loaned to him there. So normally his wife, Frances, did most of the driving.

On the day of the county convention Frances was out of town. Since both Elmer and I were going to the same meeting, I offered to drive him and he accepted. Before we could leave, however, Frances returned and took over the driving. I became a passenger.

When the convention started, Youngdale called the convention to order. He was immediately challenged for the right to preside by the county vice chairman, Bill Kavanagh, an old line regular Democrat. He said Youngdale was trying to subvert the party. Then he said those who were Democrats would meet on the north side of the courtroom, which they did. Since I felt aligned with the regular party members, I joined them. Two conventions were held simultaneously in the same room, with occasional derogatory remarks cast from one side of the room to the other. Both groups elected a slate of delegates to the district convention, passed resolutions and adjourned. The regulars finished before the Progressives so I took a seat near Benson to await my ride home.
I had borrowed a typewriter from Benson office for use at the newspaper and as soon as I sat down in front of Mrs. Benson she said angrily, ďYou can bring that typewriter back in the morning."

I could see it would be uncomfortable to ride home with Bensons so I sought another way to get home. My uncle, Joe McGowan, published the papers in Benson so I called him to see if he would give me a ride. He said he would take me as far as Danvers, if my wife would come and get me. I called her to come from Appleton and I made it home.
The following morning I did as Mrs. Benson had instructed. I carried the typewriter to Bensonís upstairs office and Elmer greeted me. He chuckled about what had happened and said I didn't have to return the typewriter. Mrs. Benson wasnít there, but I insisted on leaving the typewriter as instructed.

The personal incident camr a few years later. This involved my story in the paper about a meeting of the Appleton Association, the name for what was the Chamber of Commerce in Appleton. At one meeting a prominent local businessman, A. T. Forsberg, arose to speak abut a sensitive issue in town, which was the opening of a public restroom for women. This was designed to accommodate farm wives who came to town to shop and during the day or evening found the need for such facilities.  Forsberg made a speech in which he said the women would come to town, leave their children at the rest room and then go to the tavern to drink beer.

That was quite a bold statement and I made prominent mention of his speech in the news article. It was our practice to clip out several copies of ads run each week and deliver them to the advertisers to post around their store. When I arrived with clippings at Forsbergís, Leader Department Store he met me with both guns blazing. He loudly proclaimed that he had never made any such statement and would not advertise with me again.

He went so far as to go to a neighboring town and had circulars printed and distributed over a wide area of mail routes, proclaiming his innocence. And, true to his word, he did not advertise in the Appleton Press the following week, but finally cooled off later to advertise two weeks later.

Meanwhile I had gone to the association secretary to ask if he heard what I heard. He hedged a bit but agreed Forsberg might have made such a statement. The secretary, J. G. Anderson, left the impression it might have been better if I had edited that item out of the story. Forsberg was known to fly off the handle in public speeches and not be aware of the consequences of what he said.

I felt that the truth is sufficient defense. If he said it that was his problem. If he didnít mean such things he should not say them, at least at a public meeting with the press, present.

    When the next meeting of the association was held, the president, Paul Waldon, a prominent Republican who didnít care much for me, immediately started the meeting by saying that I had done immense harm to the community with my story and he said the press should be barred from further association meetings. I stood up and said that I was a dues paying member of the association and planned to attend future meetings. I didn't see how they could bar a member of the association from attending its meetings.

I knew I didn't have much support in the community, so I really didnít know what would come next. At that point Elmer Benson arose and gave me strong backing. He calmed the discussion and said then was no reason to bar me. The crowd was silent and nobody said anything more. Most merchants did not want to get involved, but Elmer Benson had no such fears. I was eternally grateful for what he did for me that night.

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