Author Jeanette Hurt Illustration Graham Roumieu
Don “Nick” Clifford, the last living carver of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, arrives at work around 8 a.m. and takes his seat in the gift shop. There the 90-year- old remains for the next 12 hours, until every last visitor’s question is answered and every autograph is signed. It would be a long day even for a young man—which he was when he started working here back in 1938.
Clifford was one of the last men hired to help create the Rushmore sculpture, which turns 70 this October. A Keystone native, he was 17 when he started on the mountain, though he had been trying to land a job there since he was 15. His break came when the son of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor behind Rushmore, decided to organize some of the workers into a baseball team. Clifford, an ace pitcher and outfielder, signed on as a ringer for the Mount Rushmore Memorial Drillers. Then he pestered his teammates until they finally hired him.
Clifford started out being paid 50 cents an hour cutting logs for Borglum’s studio and cranking the winches in the winch house to raise and lower cables. He was promoted to driller, which earned him an extra dollar a day. He worked there for three years. “We knew that it was important when we were working on it,” he says, “but we had no idea how important.”
Sitting in the gift shop, Clifford shares his tales, which he wrote about in his memoir, Mount Rushmore Q and A. So what Q does he get the most? “They always ask, ‘Was it scary?’ I always tell them it wasn’t scary for me, but we did have men who couldn’t stand the height,” he says. “After one day of work they’d never come back.”