The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Elthon, Leo
(June 9, 1898–April 16, 1967)

farmer and quarry operator, state senator, lieutenant governor, and 32nd governor of Iowa—was born in Fertile, Iowa, to Andrew A. and Olena P. Elthon. His father was of Norwegian descent, and his mother was Canadian.

    Elthon graduated from Fertile High School in 1917 and later attended Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis, Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, and Hamilton's University of Commerce in Mason City. He taught manual training and athletics at Clear Lake in 1918-1919 and was principal at Fertile High School in 1920. Also in 1920 he began farming; his operations eventually included truck farming, pickle processing, and winter feeding of cattle and hogs. On February 28, 1922, he married Synneva Hjelmeland of Fertile. They had six children. In his early years in farming, he became active in local public affairs as president of the school board and director of the Fertile Township farm bureau.

    In 1932 Elthon ran for the Republican nomination for the Iowa Senate from the 41st District (Worth, Winnebago, and Mitchell counties). He ran against a popular local Republican in the primary on the issue of passing a state income tax to effect property tax relief, an issue of interest to farmer who, during the Depression years, were increasingly feeling the burden of taxation on farm land. Elthon won the primary and the November general election. In his first year in the state legislature, a state income tax was enacted.

    Elthon served a total of 20 years in the state senate, being reelected in 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1948 (he ran unopposed in the general election in 1940 and 1944). He was first assigned to committees on political and judicial districts, agriculture, claims, county and township affairs, fish and game, public schools, and ways and means. In the late 1930s Governor Nelson Kraschel appointed him to a state emergency conservation works committee, where he learned the value of agricultural limestone to rejuvenate soil, and by 1938 he had started a rock quarrying operation in addition to his work as a farmer and legislator. During his last term in the state senate, he became the Republican floor leader. In 1951 he won an award from the Des Moines Press and Radio Club "for outstanding service in the senate during the 1951 session."

    In 1952 Elthon ran for lieutenant governor. No candidate received the necessary 35 percent vote in the primary, so the decision went to the Republican State Convention, which selected Elthon. In November, he was elected by a margin of nearly 200,000 votes over his Democratic opponent.

    In mid-1953 Elthon briefly considered running for governor, but announced in July that he would be a candidate for reelection as lieutenant governor instead. In November 1954 he was reelected by a margin of 73,000 votes. Less than three weeks later a tragedy propelled Elthon into the governorship. On November 21, 1954, Governor William S. Beardsley was killed in a car accident just north of Des Moines. Elthon was notified late that evening, and at 2 a.m. he left his home in Fertile and drove through the night to Des Moines to take the oath of office. Beardsley had not run for reelection and was due to retire in January. The voters had elected Iowa Attorney General Leo Hoeghas governor, but Hoegh's term would not begin until January 13. Therefore, Elthon served as governor of Iowa for 52 days (the only governor to succeed to the office due to the death of his predecessor), and was then reinaugurated as lieutenant governor.

    During his short tenure as governor, Elthon commuted the life sentences of 17 penal institution inmates, completing a procedure that Beardsley had started. He also delivered a "State of the State" address in January in which he called for additional state school aid, an accelerated road building program, a revision of school reorganization laws, enhanced highway safety, and increased unemployment insurance and workers compensation.

    At the end of his second term as lieutenant governor in January 1957, Elthon returned to Fertile and was elected mayor. He served as mayor until 1962, when he won election back to the state senate from the 45th District (Howard, Mitchell, and Worth counties). He suffered a heart attack in 1964 and missed some of the 1965 session. He was in ill health until his death on April 16, 1967.
Sources Clipping File 2 at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, includes newspaper articles extending from Elthon's first campaign for the state senate in 1932 on through obituaries in both the Des Moines Register and Des Moines Tribune in 1967. The Iowa Official Register from 1933 to 1965 includes photos and capsule biographies of Elthon over the years and statistical information on primary and general elections. The Register and Tribune ran long news and feature articles on Elthon at the time he became governor and periodically through his 52-day tenure as governor. Other newspaper articles range over the years on many items such as his 1951 award from the Des Moines Press and Radio Club and speculation through part of 1953 on his possible candidacy for governor.
Contributor: David Holmgren