The pig and the politician

Photo by Tim Schoon.

Most Iowans know about Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze pig that lately seems to have taken up permanent residence in Iowa City, except for the ten days he’s in Des Moines as one of the most gawked-at exhibits at the state fair.

But few probably know much about the man behind the pig. Floyd’s namesake—Floyd B. Olson—was governor of Minnesota during the heart of the Depression and made the wager that would create one of the most recognizable traveling trophies in sports 75 years ago this year.

Floyd the Governor

Floyd Bjornsterne Olson* was born to poor immigrants in 1891 on Minneapolis’ north side, and began his political career in 1921 as Hennepin County’s county attorney. A member of the Farmer-Labor Party,** he was elected governor in 1930. A self-described “radical,” he appealed to the rural and urban poor who were drawn to his tough rhetoric and increased state programs for people left economically adrift by the Depression.

* how Scandinavian is that?

** a third party that eventually merged with the Democratic Party to create the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which explains the curious “DFL” designation next to the names of Minnesota’s Democratic politicians still today. Minnesota has a history of embracing third-party governors, giving them 17 percent of the vote in gubernatorial elections since 1900, which goes a long way toward explaining Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

“He was a self-styled man of the people populist who connected with voters hurt by the Depression,” said Eric Ostermeier, research associate in the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. Like Wisconsin, North Dakota, and even Iowa, where voters turned out the Republican Party of favorite son Herbert Hoover to elect Democrat Clyde Herring governor, Ostermeier said Minnesotans moved their politics firmly to the left in response to the economic desperation.

In office, Olson introduced public unemployment insurance, a mortgage moratorium on farms, progressive income tax, old age pensions, and built new roads.* He also refused to use police or National Guard troops to break strikes, earning him the enmity of business owners across the state.

* State Highway 55 from Minneapolis through western Minnesota is called the Floyd B. Olson Highway in his memory. One group recently sought to rename it the Ronald Reagan Highway, arguing that such honors should not be given to liberal politicians like Olson. The plan died a quick death.

Olson didn’t back down from a political fight. He was a fiery orator on the stump and was one of the first Minnesota politicians to make effective use of radio. A bigger than life figure, he soon earned a national reputation and even considered a third-party run for the presidency in 1936 before opting to try for a fourth term as governor.

Olson was for generations a mostly beloved figure in Minnesota politics, but his image has been tarnished in recent years. Conservative groups have attacked him and the Farmer-Labor Party for what they consider a socialist legacy,* and he’s been criticized for tolerating the Mob’s presence in Minneapolis and St. Paul as governor.

* Ostermeier says that while some policies overlapped with socialists, Farmer-Laborites were not socialists per se. Ostermeier says Minnesota frequently had Socialist, Workers, and even Communist parties on the ballot in the 1920s and 1930s, so socialists would have had a home of their own outside the Farmer-Labor Party. “Some conservative groups could view him as socialist using today’s standards, but he did not govern as a socialist,” Ostermeier says.

Even the question of whether Olson was truly radical is open for debate, Ostermeier says.

“He was a radical more in his words than his deeds,” says Ostermeier. “He had a few populist accomplishments, but also made a lot of compromises with the conservative legislature. He’s not what you would expect from someone who calls himself a radical.”

It was Olson’s willingness to be conciliatory, whether with legislative conservatives or Minneapolis Mobsters, that may have led to the birth of Floyd of Rosedale.

Floyd the Conciliator

The 1935 Iowa-Minnesota game had the football world buzzing, and not just because it featured two of the nation’s top programs battling for the Big 10 title. It was also wrapped in controversy from alleged racial baiting in the 1934 game by Minnesota players against the Hawkeyes’ Ozzie Simmons, who was black.

Simmons was a native Texan unable to play college ball in his home state because of his race. So, legend has it, he came to Iowa City in a boxcar to play for the Hawkeyes and soon electrified the team as a running back and punt and kick returner. In his first varsity game in 1934, he rushed for 166 yards against Northwestern, returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and added 124 yards in punt returns.

“When he left the game in the fourth quarter, newspapers reported that Northwestern fans gave him a standing ovation,” says Jaime Schultz (MA ’99 PhD ’05), a professor of kinesiology at Penn State University who wrote about the racial angle of Floyd’s history in her PhD thesis at UI and also published a paper on the game, “A Wager Concerning a Diplomatic Pig,” in the Spring 2005 issue of The Journal of Sport History.

But later in that 1934 season, Minnesota roughed him up so badly that he was knocked unconscious three times and left the game before halftime.* Schultz said that while his injuries garnered media attention as one of the reasons for Minnesota’s 48-12 victory, few reporters outside the black press speculated on the nature of the brutal hits. She said a Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist wondered whether the hits were based on the fact Simmons was black, a charge dismissed by the Minneapolis Tribune, and that was the extent of it.

* none of the injurious hits was penalized.

Until 1935. In the run-up to that season’s game at Iowa Stadium, Iowa governor Herring brought up the charges of cheap shots against Simmons from a year earlier and decried the Gophers’ violent tactics against him. Then, raising the specter of fan vigilantism, Herring said “if the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I’m sure the crowd won’t.”

Minnesota coach Bernie Bierman saw this as a threat and reacted accordingly. Schultz said he threatened to never play Iowa again, and moved his team’s pregame practice to Rock Island, Ill., where they were guarded by Illinois police he believed would be more neutral.

With the rhetoric growing more heated, Olson decided it was time to cool things down. On Nov. 9, 1935, he telegrammed Herring a token of conciliation…

“Dear Clyde, Minnesota folks excited over your statement about the Iowa crowd lynching* the Minnesota football team. I have assured them that you are a law-abiding gentleman and are only trying to get our goat. The Minnesota team will tackle clean, but, oh! how hard, Clyde. If you seriously think Iowa has any chance to win, I will bet you a Minnesota prize hog against an Iowa prize hog that Minnesota wins today. The loser must deliver the hog in person to the winner. Accept my bet thru a reporter. You are getting odds because Minnesota raises better hogs than Iowa. My best personal regards and condolences.
Floyd B. Olson Governor of Minnesota”

* Schultz notes the use of such a regrettable word at a time when lynchings against blacks were all too common in the United States.

“It’s a bet,” Herring replied, and with that as a distraction, the game was played without incident. Simmons was “treated neither gingerly nor with excessive roughness,” Schultz says. Newspaper coverage made only brief mention of the controversy, focusing instead on the game itself and Olson’s unusual offer. When the Gophers won 13-6, Iowa was out one pig.

Simmons played one more troubled season in 1936, enduring what many in the press speculated was racially based mistreatment from Iowa coach Ossie Solem and his own teammates. While Simmons never made any public comment, many observers felt his teammates frequently left him unblocked and open to vicious hits. He even left the team for a time, although again, never made any public statement as to why. Despite his greatness, he was never named team captain or All-American, and kept out of the NFL by the league’s color barrier. Even his role in the creation of Floyd of Rosedale is mostly forgotten.

“Media accounts disseminate popular knowledge about Floyd of Rosedale in which the protagonists are the two governors, and not Simmons,” Schultz says. “The catalytic moment in the tale is the wager, and not Simmons’ injuries. In these ways, the trophy has come to symbolize a long-standing, healthy rivalry between two Midwestern states, rather than reminding us of racism in the region’s, and indeed the country’s, sporting past.”

Floyd of Rosedale

Four days after the game, Herring was in St. Paul bearing one pig. Sandy Boyd was there.

“I was 8 years old, and my father and I took the streetcar down to the Minnesota state capitol, where they were having a small ceremony,” says Boyd, a now 83-year old UI law professor and president emeritus. “The governors of Iowa and Minnesota were there, and so was Floyd.”

Boyd’s family had something of a vested interest in Floyd, in more ways than one. His father, Dr. Willard L. Boyd, Sr., was a renowned member of Minnesota’s veterinary school faculty,* so prominent pigs were always of interest to him.

* Boyd Avenue, on the university’s agricultural campus in St. Paul, is named for him.

His father also served as a faculty representative to the U’s* board in control of athletics from 1914 to 1951, so Boyd says his family bled maroon and gold.

* the universal shorthand in Minnesota for the university.

“We were rabid Gopher fans,” he says. “This was when they had a great football team and won national championships. It’s when they became known as the Golden Gophers.”

Photos provided by Minnesota Historical Society.

At the ceremony, a few words were spoken and jokes cracked and Herring handed Floyd over to Olson to make good on the wager.* He was a Hampshire boar, black with a white belt, bred at Rosedale Farms in Webster County. And he wasn’t just any pig. Schultz notes that Floyd was the progeny of a four-time grand champion and his brother, Blue Boy, had appeared in the 1933 movie State Fair.

* one wonders that if the Hawkeyes had won that game, would the two universities today be playing for Clyde of Owatonna?

But Boyd doesn’t remember much about Floyd’s details.

“He was a big pig, that’s all I could tell,” he says with a shrug.

Following the ceremony, Olson gave Floyd to the university and he was brought to a temporary home on the ag school campus. Boyd saw Floyd frequently for a time after that, when he walked through campus and past the hog pens, but he admits that he was never sure which pig was Floyd. He was pretty indistinguishable from the others. It’s not like he wore a sash that said “Floyd of Rosedale.”

“They didn’t have him in a separate area or set apart in any way,” Boyd says. “He was in a big pen with the rest of the hogs, and he blended in pretty well.”

Floyd was on campus for the next few weeks or months, Boyd can’t remember how long for sure, until one day he noticed the pens were empty.

“They didn’t say when he was going or where he went,” Boyd says. “He was just gone.”

Sadly, neither of the two Floyds survived to see the 1936 Gopher-Hawkeye game. Olson, it turned out, was already suffering from stomach cancer when he took possession of his porcine namesake and died Aug. 22, 1936, at age 44. He’s buried in Minneapolis’ Lindenwood Cemetery and remembered with dozens of statues around the state.

Floyd the pig would not make it even as long. He eventually wound up on a hog farm in southeastern Minnesota, just six miles from the Iowa border, then promptly died of cholera in July 1936. Floyd of Rosedale is buried near a grove of spruce trees.

Only one statue was ever made of him.