Portrait from the Dillon Daily Tribune, November 4, 1946.
A prominent name in Montana politics in the mid 20th century, Zales Nelson Ecton represented Montana in the U.S. Senate for one term beginning in 1947. A member of both houses of the Montana legislature prior to his election to the Senate, Ecton's notoriety on the political stage quickly faded after his failed reelection bid in 1952. Despite this loss, Ecton accomplished much good for his state while in office, and was remarked as having been a "bitter foe of reckless spending, corruption and the give-a-way foreign policy."
Born in Decatur County, Iowa on April 1, 1898, Zales Nelson Ecton was the son of Aaron Smith and Mary Delphia Ecton. The origins as to Ecton's unusual first name "Zales" remain unknown, and when age nine removed with his family to Gallatin County, Montana. He would attend school in the city of Bozeman and later studied at the Montana State College. During the First World War Ecton trained with the Student Army Training Corps but did not see action.
Following his training Ecton resumed his studies, enrolling at the University of Chicago Law School. He married on November 25, 1920 to Vera Harris (1898-1980), to whom he was wed until his death. The couple would have two children, Eloise (1923-1992) and Zales Jr. (1926-2006).
Beginning in the early 1920s Zales Ecton was engaged in ranching, making a specialty in grain production and cattle raising. He is mentioned as having owned a "1,000-acre dry land farm" near Manhattan, Montana and also helped to organize "the first oil and gas cooperative for farmers in Gallatin County." This cooperative later evolved into the Gallatin Farmers Company, of which Ecton would serve two years as president.
Ecton actively followed ranching until entering state politics in the early 1930s. Elected to represent Gallatin County in the Montana House of Representatives in 1932, Ecton served two terms in that body and in 1937 began a nine-year stint in the state senate. His near decade-long tenure in the Montana Senate saw him serve as a member of the Republican State Policy Committee and in 1943 was a prime mover in the attempt to pass legislation that would have created the 18th judicial district, "for the benefit of Gallatin County residents."
In 1946 Zales Ecton announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from Montana. He would win the Republican primary in July of that year with 66% of the vote and in November faced off against Democratic nominee Leif Erickson (1906-1998), who had defeated longtime Senator Burton K. Wheeler in the state Democratic primary. On election day in November Ecton won out over Erickson, besting him by over 15,000 votes. Ecton's senatorial win was a watershed moment for Montana Republicans, as he was the first Republican ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate in the state's history.
An Ecton campaign advertisement from the Big Timber Pioneer, Oct. 17, 1946.
Taking his seat at the start of the 1947 Senate session, Ecton went full bore into his duties as a freshman senator, taking a stand against reckless spending and the ever-increasing national debt. A member of the committees on Appropriations and the Interior and Insular Affairs, Ecton would introduce and sponsor a total of 35 measures during his term, all of which became law. As the Flathead Courier remarked on Ecton's legislation:
"Most of these relate to farm problems, public lands, reclamation, rural electrification, Indian affairs, mines and miners and civil service. He stated, however, that what this country needs most is fewer laws and better administration of those we have."In addition to his attention the above legislation, Ecton also worked closely with anti-communist Joseph McCarthy, being noted as one of the Wisconsin senator's closest allies. Ecton would support the House Un-American Activities Committee (chaired by McCarthy) and in his 1952 reelection bid even had a visit from McCarthy, who had come to Montana to campaign for Ecton.
In 1952 Ecton announced that he would be a candidate for reelection, and during that year's campaign faced off against Mike Mansfield (1903-2001), who had represented Montana's 1st Congressional district in Congress since 1943. Despite attempts to paint Mansfield as being soft on communist activity in the United States, Ecton was narrowly defeated in his bid for a second term, garnering 127, 360 votes to Mansfield's 133, 109. Mansfield would go on to serve twenty-four years in the Senate (sixteen of those as senate majority leader), and at the conclusion of his last Senate term was named as U.S. Ambassador to Japan by President Carter.
After his defeat for reelection, Zales Ecton resided in Bozeman, Montana, where he continued with his earlier ranching interests. He died at a hospital that city on March 3, 1961 at age 62, following an "extended illness." Ecton was survived by his wife Vera, who, following her death in 1980, was interred alongside her husband at the Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.
Zales Ecton during his time in the U.S. Senate.