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


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Haugen, Gilbert N.
(April 21, 1859–July 16, 1933)

–longtime U.S. representative—was born on a farm in Rock County, Wisconsin, to parents who had migrated from Norway. His father died when he was a year old. "At the age of nine years I received my first month's wages of $9," he once told an audience. An additional dollar per month came with each successive birthday. After "confirmation" in the Lutheran faith in 1873, Gilbert worked summers for relatives in northeast Iowa.

    Haugen's education began at the district school near his boyhood home, continued at the Decorah Institute in Iowa during the winters of 1874 and 1875, and culminated with graduation from Janesville Commercial College in Wisconsin in 1877. He learned to process economic data quickly. When not in school, he bought horses in Iowa and sold them in the new settlements of Minnesota and Dakota Territory.

    In 1877 he bought a farm near Kensett in Worth County, Iowa. Able and energetic, he acquired a hardware store and used it as a base for engaging in all manner of business with farmer, including horse breeding and implement sales. Neighbors elected him justice of the peace at age 21. In 1885 he married Elise Evenson, a schoolteacher from Winneshiek County. They had two children, Norma and Lauritz.

    A local newspaper characterized Haugen as "multifarious."Elected treasurer of Worth County in 1887, he moved to Northwood, the county seat. He rehabilitated the Northwood Banking Company and bought farms. In 1890 he became chairman of the Worth County Republican Central Committee. Business success and influence with party leaders soon made him the most influential man in the county.

    A setback came in 1892 when Elise died after the birth of their second child. Thereafter, Gilbert was married to politics. He never remarried.

    In 1893 Haugen was elected to the lower house of the Iowa General Assembly and gained a reputation for legislation regulating savings and loan institutions. His competence did not escapenotice by the Leif Erickson Republican League and kindred organizations that backed Norwegian Americans for public office.

    The Republican Party then dominated Iowa politics, but intraparty battles sometimes raged. Haugen failed to win his party's nomination in 1897 for the seat he had held for two terms in the Iowa House of Representatives, so he decided to run for Congress from Iowa's Fourth Congressional District. A legendary struggle ensued, requiring 366 ballots at the district convention before he secured the nomination.

    Many Norwegians lived in the district, which ran two counties deep and five wide below the Minnesota border from the Mississippi River to the center of the state. Victory came by a wide margin in the 1898 general election.

    Haugen secured a place for himself in Iowa's political history by winning 17 consecutive Fourth District elections. Initially, he had no political organization, but he built one for the 1902 campaign and kept it intact with the same leaders for three decades. Until his defeat in the Roosevelt landslide, only two of the general elections—1910 and 1912—were close.

    Service to constituents and political acumen, not charisma or eloquence, explain Haugen's political longevity. Periodically, he would stir up the oleomargarine controversy, then position himself as the dairyman's friend.

    Nationally, Haugen is remembered for the McNary-Haugen bills, the first of which came before Congress in 1924 to alleviate the post-World War I agricultural depression. They attempted to raise domestic prices of specified commodities (including grain, pork, and eventually cotton) by creating a government agency to buy up surpluses that would be sold on the world market for whatever they would bring. Producers would pay an "equalization fee," which would result in their receiving a price between the domestic and world market price.

    As chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Haugen argued that this was not radical, but equivalent to the tariff protecting manufacturers. Master of statistics, advocate for agriculture, and fatherly figure, Haugen for a time enjoyed such popularity that the Democrats did not run a candidate against him in 1926. But Republican President Calvin Coolidge vetoed McNary-Haugen legislation in 1927 and again in 1928. His secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, favored cooperative marketing as a solution to the "farm problem."

    Defeated in the very election that brought in New Deal farm policies similar to those he had been advocating for a decade, Haugen died at Northwood on July 16, 1933. His estate, including 20 farms and stock in several banks, was the largest probated in Worth County up to that time.
Sources The Gilbert Haugen Papers are housed at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. A full biography is Peter T. Harstad and Bonnie Lindemann, Gilbert N. Haugen: Norwegian-American Farm Politician (1992). See also Bonnie Michael, "Gilbert N. Haugen, Apprentice Congressman," Palimpsest 59 (1978), 118–29; Gilbert C. Fite, "Gilbert N. Haugen: Pragmatic Progressive," in Three Progressives from Iowa: Gilbert N. Haugen, Herbert C. Hoover, Henry A. Wallace, ed. John N. Schacht (1980); and John D. Black, "The McNary-Haugen Movement," American Economic Review 18 (1928), 405–27.
Contributor: Peter T. Harstad