A few days ago, I received a message on Behnke’s facebook page from Steve Baldwin from Custer, South Dakota. Curious, I went to read it and found that he was a long-time friend of my grandparents, Albert and Rose Behnke, and wanted to let my Uncle Albert know that Don ‘Nick’ Clifford had passed away at the age of 98.
A little background. My grandparents loved the Black Hills and would take long trips out west each summer staying at Sylvan Lake Resort in Custer, SD. Nick Clifford and his wife ran the resort. The following is from my uncle’s recollection.
“The Sylvan Lake Resort was quite a large complex. Clifford probably had near 100 workers. Here are some of the parts of the resort: on the hill: main hotel and cabins with large restaurant and evening entertainment, down by the lake: coffee/gift shop, museum, jeep to Harney Peak, horse ride corral, boat rental, gas station, campsites, auditorium with men’s dormitory, women’s dormitory. (The dormitories were for college workers that stayed on site.). Once a week, they had a large BBQ party down by the lake.
Early in the morning, Dad (Albert Behnke) would go down to the coffee shop and hang out with Clifford. Clifford was manning the cashier job for a while in the morning. Then Dad would drive into Custer and hang out with Steve Baldwin’s father, who owned the Standard Gas Station. Usually, in the afternoon, I would see Dad reading a paperback in the hotel’s main lobby.
The basic setup of the “Big Giant Vacation” each year was first stop, Sylvan Lake then onto Silver Gate, various more western explorations, back to Sylvan Lake to recover then to Atlantic City to recover some more. Each stop was about a week or a little less.”
After sharing this news about Mr. Clifford and writing back and forth with my uncle, I got an email from RFDTV, and there was the same man’s name. Last living Mt. Rushmore carver dies at 98! Whoa! What? How did I never know that? The next day my local newspaper, The Frederick News-Post, did a whole article on him. Now I have to guess, my grandparents knew about this. They were such big supporters of Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse, sending money all the time to help with the construction of these famous memorials. I have to wonder if maybe Clifford was the one that got them interested.
Here is a link to his obituary with more information about his life. At age 17, Donald ‘Nick’ Clifford was the youngest worker hired to work at Mount Rushmore. He operated a winch that carried workers up and down the mountain where the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln were carved, plus he drilled holes for dynamite. Earning 55 cents an hour, he worked there from 1938 to 1940. Between 1927 and 1941, nearly 400 men and a few women worked on the memorial, which is now visited by almost 3 million people annually.
It really is amazing how connected my grandparents were with so many people. Below is a photo from the Frederick News-Post in 1933 of Mt. Rushmore. Next to it is one of Albert Behnke showing Mr. and Mrs. Clifford around Behnke Nurseries during their visit in 1960.
It sure is a small world we live in. Thank you so very much, Steve Baldwin, for sharing this information with me. I am wondering if at the age of 12 or so when I went out west with my grandparents if I met this gentleman. I know we stayed in Custer at Lake Sylvan and I remember horseback riding up into the mountains. I saw so many things during that trip and met so many people.
Stephanie Fleming, Beyond Behnke’s