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A look back: George Clifford, one of those behind Cream of Wheat, was successful early settler of Grand Forks

Clifford relocated to Grand Forks by 1882. He then had roles in a number of ventures.

George Clifford.jpg
George Clifford, one of Grand Forks' early influential residents.
Grand Forks County Historical Society
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George B. Clifford was born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1858, an eighth generation New Hampshirite.

Clifford’s father, Benjamin B. Clifford, was listed as a drover in the 1860 Census with real estate valued at $16,000 and a personal estate of $7,815.00. He died of typhoid fever in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in August of 1873. His widow, Ruth Nourse George, was born in Newbury, Vermont in 1835.

Following her husband’s death, Ruth moved into the home of her parents in Newbury with her sons George, Charles, Joseph, Frederic and Alvin. In 1880, George was studying law in Montpelier, Vermont. His brother Charles was working as a tailor, Joseph worked for a printer and the two youngest brothers attended school.

George Clifford relocated to Grand Forks by 1882. He joined James H. Bosard forming the partnership Bosard and Clifford, Lawyers. Bosard came to Grand Forks from Pennsylvania several years earlier. In 1885 Joseph Clifford was also listed in the Grand Forks directory with the occupation of bookkeeper. The Clifford brothers resided in a boarding house on South Third Street.

Bosard and Clifford became attorneys for the Vermont Loan and Trust Company. Soon, Clifford was elected secretary and western manager of the company; he was just getting started on a long and successful career in the banking industry.

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The St. Paul Globe reported his wedding to Miss Minnie Cooley in May 1888, identifying him as secretary of the Dakota Investment Company. Minnie was the daughter of John E. Cooley, a farmer who resided on Woodland Avenue, between South Third Street and the Red River, just south of the Point Bridge today. George Bull, another farmer, also lived on Woodland Avenue. Bull would become an important business partner to Clifford in a few years.

In 1889, the Cliffords built their home on the southwest corner of Reeves Drive and South Fourth Street. His brother Joseph built his home next door to the south. Their mother, Ruth, came west to Grand Forks, as did the younger Clifford brothers, Frederic and Alvin. Ruth Clifford resided with George for the rest of her life.

In 1890 Clifford built a five-story business block on the corner of North Third Street and First Avenue North. It became the home of another one of his enterprises , the Security Trust Company and was called the Security Building. It held Grand Forks City offices for a time, and it also provided a home for the Knights of Pythias lodge. It was the first location for the YMCA in Grand Forks. Its pink color was unique in Grand Forks’ downtown. Sadly, it is now remembered most in one of our city’s most famous photos — of the great fire during the 1997 flood.

The Grand Forks Illustrated book from 1891 reported that the Grand Forks National Bank stock had recently been purchased by its president, George F. Shutt, and Vice President George B. Clifford. Previously the bank’s capital was owned by stockholders outside of Grand Forks.

According to a memoir by Daniel Bull, his father, George Bull, partnered with Emory Mapes to start the Diamond flour mill in 1890 on the present site of the Grand Forks Police Department on South Fifth Street. Bull wrote that the used machinery that Mapes had acquired was nearly useless; parts were warped and most of the bearings missing.

The mill needed capital for repairs and better equipment. It needed a partner like George B. Clifford. In 1891, the North Dakota Milling Association filed articles of incorporation with the secretary of state of North Dakota with capital of $50,000. Its incorporators were George B. Clifford, Emory Mapes and George Bull. This partnership would become one of the most important business enterprises in Grand Forks’ history.

In 1893 the Diamond Mill’s head miller, Tom Amidon, presented the owners with a hot cereal that he developed from farina, the middling part of the wheat kernel, combined with hot water, then topped with sugar and milk. In 1893 the world economy was devastated by the Panic of ‘93 and the Diamond Mill was not immune from the economic depression. This new product, however, based on a simple ingredient, would rocket to national popularity thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign utilizing nationally popular magazines. Fred Clifford, younger brother of George, came up with the name for the cereal: Cream of Wheat.

Clifford initiated another business venture in 1892, the Grand Forks Woolen Mill. In 1895 he constructed a three-story building for the mill on North Third Street and University Avenue. George was president of the company with another brother, Alvin P. Clifford, secretary and treasurer. Alvin managed the mill, which produced yarns, blankets, flannels, skirts, mackinaws, underwear and shawls. A mackinaw, in case you were wondering, is a heavy waterproof woolen jacket. This building still stands today and is owned and managed by Epic Companies ND.

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In 1897 George Bull passed away. He traveled by train to Minneapolis to select a new location for manufacturing Cream of Wheat. Demand for the product exceeded the capacity of the Diamond Mill in Grand Forks. He returned home very ill and died of pneumonia.  His widow Elizabeth returned home to Orange County, New York, with her children Bessie, Daniel and Clara. George Clifford was a pallbearer at the funeral Joseph Clifford sang with the Presbyterian Quartet.

S. S. Titus, a good friend of the Bull family and a founder of First National Bank, promised to look after the Bull holdings in the company. The company paid out its first dividend in 1901. Elizabeth received a check for $6,000 and told her son Dan that they would not have to worry about money ever again. The Bulls returned to Grand Forks. In 1902, Elizabeth married Webster Merrifield, president of UND.

For the remainder of the 1890s Clifford continued his business in real estate and farm loans; his clients ranged from the Red River Valley to New York and New England. His brothers, who were also business partners with George B. Clifford and Company, thrived in Grand Forks as well. Joseph was a talented tenor and directed the choir of the Plymouth Congregational Church and later the First Presbyterian Church and YMCA Quartet. Alvin was the organist for Plymouth Church and an excellent pianist. The 1897 Grand Forks Illustrated book remarked that “... as an accompanist he has few equals.”

In 1902 Clifford erected another business block in Grand Forks, the Clifford Building, on DeMers Avenue and South Fourth Street. Its third floor was the first home to the University of North Dakota Law School (1902-1918). The Clifford Annex was built in 1906 next door to the Clifford Building on DeMers Avenue.

Joseph Bell DeRemer designed an addition to George and Minnie Clifford’s home in 1907. Then tragedy struck. In September of that year the Cliffords, with their sons Ralph and Bernard, were driving to Minneapolis to attend the Minnesota State Fair. They also planned a visit with Fred and Joseph Clifford, who now resided in Minneapolis. Ralph was at the wheel when the automobile lost power going up a hill west of Ashby, Minnesota, and started rolling backwards. As the car tipped, George and the boys were able to jump off to safety. Minnie, however, was fatally injured. Her skull was fractured, and she died within minutes.

George moved to Minneapolis in 1909. According to the Grand Forks Herald, he visited Grand Forks occasionally to look after his business interests. In 1916 he married Charlotte Thaxter of Minneapolis. George Clifford passed away in his Minneapolis home in 1943.

Today, few residents of Grand Forks know his name — usually in reference to his “Cream of Wheat House” on Reeves Drive. But he influenced the development of our city in many ways. He was a president of the Chamber of Commerce, he was a Mason, he was an original stockholder of the Northern League (1904), he helped organize the Town and Country Club and transform it into Lincoln Park. Many of our ancestors probably received financing from his loan agencies, making it possible to build homes or improve their farms. Perhaps it’s because he was a humble man.

In the 1900 census he listed his occupation as “clerk.” He was much more than that.

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The author of this piece, Leah Byzewski, is the director of the Grand Forks County Historical Society.

Related Topics: GRAND FORKSHISTORICAL
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