Filling a monumental hole at Mount Rushmore

Leslie Silverman

The recent passing of Nick Clifford has left a hole, not only in the Mount Rushmore family but also in the small town of Keystone. 

Clifford came from humble beginnings.

“They grew up right here in Keystone, most of the time in this house and they didn’t have much money,” shared Carolyn Clifford, Nick Clifford’s wife and partner for over 45 years. 

Nick loved to cut firewood.

“They grew up heating with wood. He enjoyed growing up in this house that we restored,” Carolyn said. 

Nick and Carolyn Clifford bought his childhood house at auction.

“We sat up at the cemetery,” Carolyn Clifford said. “Nick didn’t want it and we had a coffee and cookies. We’d take a thermos of coffee and go up and sit on that bench.  He sat there and said, ‘Carolyn what do we want that old house for? Nothing but work and money.’ We ended up with it. And it was work and money.”

But Nick Clifford loved the house.

“It was worth it,” Carolyn Clifford said. “It was in pretty bad shape. We didn’t buy it until (1997).”

Carolyn Clifford kept pictures of the work the pair did in rehabbing the home.

“Here Nick is scraping the old linoleum off the front dining room area,” she said with a chuckle. “As he was scraping the linoleum off the dining room floor Nick said, ‘It’s hard to believe that 65 years ago I sat here doing homework by kerosene lamp.’”

The home is a stop on the historic Keystone walking tour.

Nick Clifford himself is a celebrity of sorts, leaving a long legacy with his sudden passing.

“He did become a very important person because for 12 years he was the last one and because he was invited to come to the public,” Carolyn Clifford said. “Nick was the youngest, relative to year of birth. He was willing to spend this time doing what he did. This is what he enjoyed. The circumstances just worked out that he was the one that was willing to do what he ended up doing. And as a result it gave him a lasting legacy.”

Long after his work on carving the monument ended, Nick Clifford would share his experiences with visitors at the memorial.

“We’ve been up there for 20 years as guests of Xanterra in the gift shop,” Carolyn Clifford said. “We were invited up there by the concessions at that time for Nick to visit with the people, answer the questions. We worked about three days a week for five hours a day.”

During that time, Carolyn Clifford kept a journal of interesting things, things she  might not be able to remember.

“The one thing I did to begin with was write down all the questions people would ask Nick,” Carolyn Clifford said. She never had any intention to do anything with that journal. But after being approached by a local author who wanted to write about her husband’s life, Carolyn persuaded Nick to publish his own book.

“You know if there’s going to be a book about you on the shelf at Mount Rushmore your name has to be on the cover,” Carolyn Clifford said. Carolyn had all the makings of a question and answer book from the journal she kept and the pair embarked on putting those questions and answers into a self-published book that would reach Clifford’s “fans.”

Nick Clifford was dedicated to his work and to Mount Rushmore, working every day until the day of his passing.

“He continued to do it right up until he died,” Carolyn Clifford said. “We were ready to go to work the morning of Nov. 8. We had worked on the day before, Thursday. We’d work for three hours now. We wouldn’t take a break. We’d work from about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. It would usually get to be 1:30 p.m. maybe even a quarter to two because we didn’t just close right up at one o’clock if we were talking to the people.” 

Nick Clifford had a gift for telling his story and the story of the monument.

“An emotional lady told Nick after talking with him about Mount Rushmore, ‘I think I’m in love with you,’” Carolyn Clifford said. “‘(Nick Clifford responded) Well I love you for coming to see Mount Rushmore.’”

Nick Cliffords’s love for the monument endured for over 80 years.

“He was just very dedicated to making an enjoyable experience to the visitors,” Carolyn Clifford said. “And he was the only one who could do that.” 

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