Portrait courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A six-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from North Dakota, Olger Burton Burtness was a prominent figure in North Dakota politics for nearly fifty years. A county prosecuting attorney and state legislator prior to his election to Congress, Burtness would later serve as a city attorney and state district court judge after his last term in Congress concluded in 1933.
Olger B. Burtness' birth occurred on March 14, 1884, in Grand Forks County, North Dakota, being the son of Ole and Mary Anderson Burtness. Raised on a farm in that county, Burtness received his education at a school in Mekinock and later enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. A member of that school's football team and debating society, Burtness also was head editor of the university yearbook, the Decorah. Earning his bachelor of arts degree in 1906, Burtness received his bachelor of laws degree the following year and in 1907 was admitted to practice law.
Establishing his practice in Grand Forks, Burtness married in September 1909 to Zoe Ensign (1884-1962), to whom he was wed for over fifty years. The couple's union is believed to have been childless. In 1910 Burtness tested the political waters for the first time, successfully winning election as Prosecuting Attorney for Grand Forks County. Taking office at the start of the new year, Burtness held that post for six years and in 1916 served as part of the North Dakota delegation to that year's Republican National Convention in Chicago that nominated Charles E. Hughes for the presidency.
From the Grand Forks Evening Times, Oct. 31, 1910.
Olger Burtness set his sights on higher office in June 1917 when he announced his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives from North Dakota's first congressional district. One of five aspirants to file for that office, this was a special election to fill the vacant seat of Henry Thomas Helgeson, who had died some weeks previously. After winning the endorsement of the Republican district convention, Burtness hit the campaign trail, stumping at a number of locations throughout his district. Despite being touted in local newspapers as the son of a pioneer Grand Forks family, as well as a farmer and prominent citizen, Burtness lost out on election day that July, being defeated by Non- Partisan League candidate John M. Baer by a vote of 13, 211 to 8, 969.
A Burtness campaign notice from the Grand Forks Herald, 1917.
Returning to his law practice following his defeat, Burtness announced his candidacy for the North Dakota House of Representatives in 1918 and won election to that body in November of that year. Taking his seat at the start of the 1919-20 session, Burtness was once again a candidate for Congress in 1920 and in November of that year defeated John W. Baer by "an official majority of 11, 458."
Burtness' first term as a representative saw him serve on the committees on Alcoholic Liquor Traffic, Indian Affairs and Public Lands. Reelected to Congress by wide margins in 1922, 1924, 1926, 1928 and 1930, Burtness would attempt to win election to a seventh term in 1932 but was not renominated, the nod instead going to North Dakota Attorney General William Lemke (1878-1950).
After leaving Congress Olger Burtness returned to his Grand Forks law practice. He would continue to be politically active, serving as Grand Forks City Attorney in 1936-37 as well as being a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1936 and 1948. Burtness was called to public service once again in 1950 when then Governor Frederick Aandahl appointed him as the judge for North Dakota's First Judicial District, succeeding retiring Judge Peter Swenson. Burtness would subsequently win reelection to the bench in 1952 and 1956 and served until his death four years later.
In addition to the above Olger B. Burtness gained prominence in several non-political areas, including service as director of the Red River National Bank and as a member of the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. Further honors were accorded to Burtness in 1930 when President Herbert Hoover selected him as a member of the U.S. delegation to celebrate the centennial of the Icelandic parliament.
Olger B. Burtness died in Grand Forks on January 20, 1960, at age 75 and was interred at the Memorial Park Cemetery in that city. Shortly after his death, Zoe Burtness would donate $100,000 in her husband's memory to the University of North Dakota to establish the Burtness Theatre, which was dedicated in April 1963.
Olger B. Burtness in old age.