The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Douglas, George Bruce
(September 22, 1858–November 12, 1923)

–Cedar Rapids businessman—was born in Waterloo, Iowa, one of three sons of George and Margaret (Boyd) Douglas. The senior Douglas was born in Scotland, came to the United States as a young stonemason, and established himself as a railroad builder identified with the Illinois Central and the Chicago and North Western Railway in Iowa and Nebraska, and with the International & Great Northern Railroad in Texas. In 1868 he relocated to Cedar Rapids. When the financial depression of 1874 caused the suspension of railroad building, he became interested in the cereal business. Later he joined Robert Stuart as a partner in the North Star Oatmeal mill, which later became the Quaker Oats Company.

    George Bruce Douglas was educated in public and private schools prior to attending Iowa Agricultural College and the State University of Iowa. Upon graduation, he joined Douglas and Stuart, which in 1891 became part of the Quaker Oats Company.

    With his brother Walter D. Douglas, he organized the Douglas Company in 1894 to manufacture linseed oil. It was one of several large agriculturally based industries founded in Cedar Rapids at that time. In 1899 it was sold to the American Linseed Company. The brothers built a new starch plant in 1903, which, during its 16-year history, reached a national market with its cornstarch and corn oil products. New buildings were added, and by 1914 the company employed more than 400 people. It was among the first to advertise its products nationally in women's magazines. The ads often included recipes featuring Douglas cornstarch and Douglas oil.

    In 1892 Douglas married Irene Hazeltine of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The couple had three daughters: Margaret (b. 1896), Ellen (b. 1905), and Barbara (b. 1908). In 1906, in the largest private real estate transaction in Cedar Rapids to that date, they traded their home at 800 Second Avenue, which they had built in 1894, for Caroline Soutter Sinclair's country estate. Following two years of extensive remodeling of the mansion, the Douglas family moved into their new home. The estate, named Brucemore to reflect Douglas's Scottish heritage, became the city's most prominent residential site as it expanded to 33 acres by 1910. The new land permitted construction of a barn/stable, servants' duplex, squash court/book bindery, greenhouse, and guest cottage as well as formal gardens in a landscape designed by O. C. Simonds. The Douglas family spent summers in Charlevoix, Michigan, and winters in Santa Barbara, California, where they had homes.

    Although a serious businessman, Douglas also wrote poetry to his daughters, performed in local theatrical productions, and was an avid golfer. In 1905 he was a founder and first president of the Cedar Rapids Country Club, where he could pursue his athletic and social interests. For many years he served on the Coe College Board of Trustees, where he chaired the Finance Committee. Other ventures included service on the boards of Cedar Rapids National Bank, Security Savings Bank, St. Luke's Hospital, and the First Presbyterian Church.

    In 1912 tragedy struck, as his brother, Walter, was returning from Europe with his wife on the Titanic. Walter Douglas perished as he helped other passengers to safety. His wife, Mahala, and her maid were saved. Later Mahala Douglas testified at a congressional hearing about the disaster. Walter's body was recovered and buried in the family mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids.

    After Walter's death, George Douglas continued to expand the Douglas Starch Works, which by 1914 was rated as the largest independent starch works in the world. The prosperity and expansion stopped in May 1919, when a devastating explosion at the Starch Works killed 43 workers. The loss was estimated at $3 million. Engineers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture arrived the next day to investigate the cause. Despite a thorough inquest, the result was reported only as a fire of unknown origin followed by an explosion. After the accident, Penick & Ford, Ltd. acquired the company and began operation in January 1921.

    Throughout his life George Bruce Douglas traveled widely in the United States and abroad. However, following the explosion at the plant, he retreated to his home, suffered from severe depression, and lived a quiet life until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1923. His widow, Irene Hazeltine Douglas, assumed some of his responsibilities, including becoming Coe College's first female trustee. Brucemore continued to be the center of much social and philanthropic activity during the next 14 years. Eldest daughter Margaret Douglas Hall and her husband, Howard Hall, lived in the estate's Garden House after their 1924 marriage, joining Irene Douglas in Brucemore endeavors.
Sources The archives at Brucemore, now a National Trust Historic Site, hold primary source materials related to Douglas's life and career. An obituary appeared in the Cedar Rapids Republican, 11/13/1923. See also Luther A. Brewer and Barthenius L. Wick, The History of Linn County Iowa (1911).
Contributor: Peggy Boyle Whitworth