BEN OLCOTT was born in Keithsburg, Illinois. After attending a business college in Dixon, Illinois, he began working as a clerk in Chicago, and later moved to Salem, Oregon, where he roomed with Governor-to-be Oswald West (1911-1915). During his earliest years in Oregon, Olcott held a variety of jobs, including farmhand, bricklayer, hops picker, shoe salesman, sewer digger, bookkeeper, homesteader, and clerk, and prospected for gold in Oregon and British Columbia as well as in Alaska, where he drove his own dog team up the Yukon and Tanana Rivers to Fairbanks, working as a gold dust teller and buyer and as a bank branch manager. When he returned to Salem, he worked for Oswald West in the State Land Office and then won appointment by Governor George Chamberlain to represent Oregon in a case involving the failure of a Portland bank in which the state had deposited money. Although Olcott was a Republican and West a Democrat, Olcott ran his old friend’s gubernatorial campaign and was appointed Secretary of State in 1911 when West took office. He later won election to that office twice, in 1912 and 1916. As Secretary of State, he succeeded to the governorship upon the death of James Withycombe. Among his earliest actions as governor was to persuade the U.S. Army to provide air patrol for fire detection in Oregon’s forests. His interest in the state’s forests also led to the enactment of legislation to protect forested areas along state highways. Although he was considered to hold nativist views, at least with respect to the treatment of Japanese-Americans, whom he encouraged the Oregon legislature to bar from holding land, he lost election to the governorship in his own right in 1923 because of his denouncement of the Ku Klux Klan. He only narrowly won the Republican primary and then lost the general election to Democratic nominee Walter Piece, who advocated Klan-supported anti-Catholic compulsory school education legislation. After leaving office, Olcott moved to California to become manager of the Long Beach branch of the Bank of Italy. He later became a director of the Oregon Mutual Savings Bank of Portland.
Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 4. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1978. 4 vols.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 40. New York: James T. White & Company.
Oregon State Archives