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The Life of George B. Douglas

1817 - George B. Douglas's father was also named George. George's father, George Douglas Sr., was a native of Scotland, born April 17, 1817.

1848 - He came to Rochester, New York in 1848 and entered the construction business, concentrating on railroads, bridges and canals.

Portrait-- Young George B. Douglas1850-70 - George Douglas Sr. followed the westward expansion of the railroads. In the early 1870's his company contracted with John I. Blair, railroad financier, to grade, lay track & construct bridges in western Iowa, eastern Nebraska and Texas.

1874 - George Douglas Sr. entered a partnership with Robert Stuart in the manufacture of oatmeal and other cereal products. This partnership lasted until George Douglas Sr.'s death in 1884.

Portrait-- Young George B. Douglas
Courtesy of Brucemore National Historic Site

George Douglas Sr. had three sons- George B., William W. and Walter D.

The family business, known as North Star Oatmeal Mills,continued to grow as George Sr.'s three sons took active roles in its operation.

Engraving--North Star Mills, 1875
Engraving--North Star Mills, 1875

North Star Mills, 1887

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North Star Mills, 1887

Other Douglas family businesses were a shoe factory, Gates, Gifford and Douglas headed by Walter, and a cracker factory called Jones and Douglas, managed by George Sr.'s nephew James Douglas.

Jones, Douglas & Co. (cracker factory) 1887
Jones, Douglas & Co. (cracker factory) 1887

1894 - The three Douglas brothers formed Douglas & Company to manufacture linseed oil. This company operated it at 6th St. & D Ave. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

1899 - The Douglas & Company was sold to the American Linseed Company.

1902 - George and Walter started building an independent starch manufacturing company. The company prospered and more than tripled its production in three years.

Important by-products of the starch making process were gluten feed used to fatten cattle, and corn oil which was used to manufacture soap in that era, rather than its present day use as cooking oil and in other food products.

1905 -Walter moved to Minneapolis where he developed interests in banking and grain processing.

1906 -George Bruce Douglas and his wife Irene Hazeltine Douglas moved to a mansion named Brucemore. The estate was renamed Brucemore because his middle name was Bruce. The Douglas family hired a Chicago architect Howard van to make $30,000 worth of renovations on the home.

The architect relocated the entrance to the south facade and built a terrace on the north side facing the huge lawn.

A sleeping porch was designed and created by Grant Wood, a local artist who later became world renowned for his Regionalist paintings, most notably American Gothic.

North Starchworks Map 1905

Douglas Starchworks 1906
Douglas Starchworks 1906

1912 -Misfortune seemed to plague the Douglas family. Walter and his wife Mahala were touring Europe and were passengers on the voyage of the Titanic. She survived but he did not.

Map--Douglas Starchworks  1918 Courtesy of Penford Products
Douglas Starchworks 1918 Courtesy of Penford Products

1918 - The Douglas Starchworks was extensively expanded which added manufacturing capacity and a handsome new office building.

1919 - Disaster soon followed. The complex was wracked by a massive explosion at 6:30 in the evening of May 22nd, and the ensuing fire left a landscape resembling a war zone.

Starchworks disaster
Starchworks disaster
Courtesy of Penford Products

The blast was so powerful that many downtown businesses across the Cedar River were damaged by flying debris.

100 Block of 3rd Ave SE
100 Block of 3rd Ave SE

The blast killed 43 people. It would have been much worse if the accident had happened during the day shift.

A quote from the USDA investigation report reads, "Ward Mathews, cone settling room attendant, stated that he was sitting in the window of the second story of the cone settling building looking across the 20-foot alley towards the dry starch packing room. He saw a flame come out of the second story window accompanied by considerable smoke. Then the force of the explosion pushed him eastward into one of the cone settlers where he was bridged over by a timber. He heard crashing sounds about him until he was rescued by the firemen. He was not burned but was badly bruised."

1919 - Following the disaster, stockholders deserted en masse but George Douglas was able to hold the company together until a Louisiana company, Penick & Ford Ltd. purchased it in December.

1921 - The plant was rebuilt and resumed production.

Photograph--Aerial view of Penick & Ford  late 1920s
Photograph - Aerial view of Penick & Ford late 1920s

1923 - George B. Douglas died. His wife Irene Douglas, lived in the family home, Brucemore, until her death in 1937.

George Bruce Douglas had a profound influence on the industrial development of Cedar Rapids. His companies were early pioneers in moving corn products from field to table. Today multi-national companies such as Quaker Oats and Archer Daniels Midland process Iowa products and serve consumers worldwide through a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Sources:
Cedar Rapids, the Magnificent Century, Harold F. Ewoldt, 1988, Windsor Publications, Northridge, CA

Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, Andreas Atlas Co, Chicago

Progressive Men of Iowa, 1899, Conaway & Shaw, Des Moines

The Story of Cedar Rapids, Janette S. & Frederick G. Murray, 1950, Stratford House NY

History of Linn County Iowa Vol II, 1911, Luther A. Brewer and Barthinius L. Wick The Pioneer Publishing Company, Chicago

Views of Cedar Rapids, 1906, L.H. Nelson Company, Portland, Maine

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.A., 1891, Flower & Wilstach, Cedar Rapids, IA

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1895, updated through 1905

Glimpses of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wm. Baylis Photographer, Chas. B. Armstrong Publisher, 1898

 

 
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