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The Last Living Carver of Mount Rushmore Reflects on the Monument at 75

The 95-year-old looks back at the colossal effort that went into making the American masterpiece

(Courtesy of Don Clifford)
smithsonian.com

Don Clifford was just 17 when he joined some 400 men—blacksmiths, tramway operators, drillers and carvers—to toil away on a massive project. In just 14 years time, they succeeded in removing 800 million pounds of rock from a pine-covered granite mountain in South Dakota. The project was called Mount Rushmore, and it celebrates its 75th birthday this year. Clifford takes pride in his achievement—as long as you don’t call him a sculptor.

“None of us were sculptors. We only had one sculptor—that was Mr. Gutzon Borglum,” says Clifford.

Clifford is the last of his kind, the only Mount Rushmore worker still alive today. The 95-year-old, who answers to Nick, is quick to disavow the title of sculptor, but not his role in building the historic monument.

Back in the 1920s, South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson started searching for a way to bring more tourists to the Black Hills National Forest. Visitors didn’t want to schlep all the way out West just for the scenery—they also wanted a show. So Robinson hatched a grand plan. He would employ a sculptor to carve the likeness of giants of the American West into the natural pillars of granite needles in the Black Hills of South Dakota, immortalizing heroes like Red Cloud, one of the Lakota people’s most famous 19th-century leaders, in rock. (Apparently Robinson did not see the irony of employing Red Cloud’s image for a tourist gimmick on territory that had been illegally seized from the Lakota people by the United States.)

Robinson first reached out to one of America's best sculptors, Lorado Taft, for the job. But Taft declined due to poor health. Robinson then contacted Borglum for the project. The sculptor, who was looking for a way out of sculpting a different monument—a shrine to the South partially financed by the KKK in Georgia—accepted the challenge. He had his own idea for the job, though; he wanted to create a "shrine to democracy" and carve the faces of the United States’ founding presidents into the granite. Borglum also decided that The Needles would be too limiting for his ambitious project. After he traveled to South Dakota, he selected a mountain with a shoulder of granite that would capture as much direct sunlight as possible to serve as his canvas.

That mountain was Mount Rushmore, located near Keystone, South Dakota. Keystone was a small community of miners and lumberers numbering some 700 to 800 strong when Borglum came. Many jumped at the chance to work on his mountain. “It was a different kind of job,” as Clifford puts it.

Born on July 5, 1921, 17-year-old Clifford knew how to use a jackhammer, but it was likely another skill of his that caught the eye of Borglum’s son, Lincoln, an avid baseball fan: Clifford’s talent with a mitt.

“He thought, if he was going to hire some men to work than he might as well hire baseball players, which he did,” says Clifford, who played right field and pitcher for the amateur team that Lincoln assembled. The Rushmore Memorial Drillers baseball team, perhaps due to Lincoln’s eye for recruitment, wasn’t too bad. They made it to the State Amateur Baseball Tournament two years in a row.

The workers were a close-knit community of friends and neighbors and often played jokes on one another. Clifford recalls being grabbed by four co-workers who held him in place so they could nail his shoes to the platform where the workers rode a tramway. There he stood, stuck, when Borglum pulled up in his car first thing in the morning. “I was standing on the platform and I thought, well what do I do? I'm supposed to be working. So I just kind of folded my arms and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Borglum.’”

Later, Clifford had his revenge. The men left their lunchboxes in a line, and one day, Clifford took a hammer and nailed down the lunches of those who had a hand in his shoe incident. Many handles were left on the ground that day. “We had a lot of fun,” says Clifford.

The men worked on the mountain six days a week from 7:30 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. They paused for a half-hour lunch break at noon, when they’d carry their lunches to the top of the mountain to eat. In between meals, they used dynamite to remove rough rock from the face of the mountain. “We used lots and lots of dynamite," he says, and indeed, 90 percent of the mountain was carved thanks to Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel’s invention.

The work was seasonal, and the mountain shut down every winter. The men would then find other employment around Keystone to get by as they waited until spring and the call to show up to work again.  “It was a dusty, dirty, noisy job, but we were happy to have the job. We were dedicated to the mountain, so we kept at it,” says Clifford. During the last spring of construction, Borglum died after suffering a heart attack at the age of 73. Lincoln oversaw the final months of construction on his father’s masterwork.

After Mount Rushmore was done, the workers dispersed. For years, the only recognition they received was an invitation to the annual Fourth of July program held by the National Parks Service. That changed in 1991, when President George H. W. Bush came to South Dakota for the 50th dedication ceremony of Mount Rushmore along with his press corps. “We had many interviews after that and talked more about Mount Rushmore than we had before,” says Clifford.

But by that time, many of the stories of the men who worked on the mountain had been lost. In their place, myths about the towering granite tribute grew, though Clifford is quick to dismiss them. “There's no caves or anything in the faces,” says Clifford. “They are made of real, hard granite.”

Not that the mountain doesn’t contain secrets, including many unfinished elements. Borglum initially imagined creating a hall of records to hold some of America’s most important documents, but the project was abandoned with his death. The incomplete hall left behind a crevice that is about as tall as an adult giraffe, containing 16 porcelain panels that have been sealed with black granite. But Clifford dismisses suggestions that the hidden chamber contains anything of value. “It’s just a tunnel, it goes back 75-80 feet. There really is nothing in it,” he says.

Today, Clifford and his wife Carolyn reside in his childhood home in Keystone. "Mr. Borglum's mountain" still looms large. In 1996, they donated a worker recognition plaque to the monument, which pays tribute to everyone who had a hand building Rushmore. Several years later, Clifford wrote his own book about his experience on the mountain. But the mantle of being the last surviving worker of Mount Rushmore isn't something he dwells on. He sees it as his continued responsibility to share his stories with the public on behalf of all of the workers who were not able to tell their own stories firsthand. 

“I'm just happy to be here and I hope I'm around a few more years and can tell people about the mountain,” he says. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but I'm still here.”

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