Ben Wilson Olcott (1872-1952) was born on Keithsburg, Illinois on October 15, 1872. He came west to Salem, Oregon in 1892 to work with William Brown and Company. While in Salem he became acquainted with Oswald West, who was elected Oregon's Governor in 1910, and who exerted major influence on Olcott's future career. After a stint as a gold dust teller and buyer with the Fairbanks Banking Company, Olcott rejoined his friend West in 1907. West headed Oregon's State Land Office and he hired Olcott as an agent. When West decided to run for the governorship of Oregon in 1910, Olcott headed his successful campaign. West appointed Olcott as Secretary of State in 1911 when the incumbent died in office, even though West was a Democrat and Olcott a Republican. Noted for his "business efficiency" and integrity, Olcott was elected to the position in 1912 and again in 1916.
During Olcott's last term as Secretary of State, Governor Withycombe died in office and Olcott succeeded to the governorship, as provided by the state constitution. With the assistance of the U.S. Army, he pioneered aerial navigation and forest patrol work in the interest of forest fire prevention. He also secured protective legislation for forests bordering scenic highways, pushed development of hard-surface roads, and personally lobbied the state legislature for funds to construct a new boys' State Training School.
Olcott was defeated in his 1922 election campaign by Walter M. Pierce, the Democrat candidate. The election centered on the notorious "School bill," an effort by anti-Catholic groups (especially the Ku Klux Klan) to prohibit the use of public tax monies in funding private, i.e. Catholic parochial, schools. Although a Protestant, Olcott refused to support the proposed measure and reportedly saw that Klan members were vigorously prosecuted whenever they engaged in activities of terror. Pierce, on the other hand, supported the anti-Catholic measure and tacitly accepted the Klan's endorsement of his campaign.
Olcott returned to banking after the 1922 campaign, serving as manager of the Bank of Italy's branch in Long Beach, California, from 1923-1924. He then accepted the position of director with Oregon Mutual Savings Bank in Portland, where he completed his career. Olcott died in 1952.
From the guide to the Ben Wilson Olcott papers, 1911-1933, (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries)