The Douglas Family

1906-1937

The Douglas family had a profound influence on the industrial and cultural development of Cedar Rapids.

The family's industries, Douglas & Company and Quaker Oats, provided employment for the city's residents and an income that allowed the Douglases to purchase and run Brucemore.

George Douglas, Sr., was a Scottish immigrant who began his career working in railroad construction. In the 1870s, he became a founding partner in the cereal firm of Douglas and Stuart, which later merged to become Quaker Oats.

Two of his sons, George Bruce Douglas and Walter Douglas, subsequently pursued careers in agribusiness by forming Douglas & Company, a linseed oil manufacturer, and then Douglas Starch Works, which produced corn starch products.

Read more about the Douglas family

A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Irene Hazeltine Douglas met George while visiting relatives in Cedar Rapids.

George and Irene married in 1892 and Margaret, the first of their three daughters, was born in 1896. Irene gave birth to their second daughter Ellen in 1905 followed shortly by Barbara in 1908, the youngest child and only person born at Brucemore.

In 1906, George and Caroline Sinclair negotiated to trade the Douglas's home on Second Avenue for Brucemore at a cost of $125,000. When George and his wife Irene moved to the Mansion, the estate was renamed Brucemore, combining George's middle name with an allusion to the moors of Scotland.

George, Irene, and daughters Margaret, Ellen, and Barbara made Brucemore a lively home with all the benefits of country living. They tripled the property size and added many of the landscape features and buildings still found on the property today.

Irene was a tolerant mother and Brucemore a generous playground for the Douglas girls. In the early years, the girls and their friends were tutored in the third-floor preschool. As they grew older, they enjoyed such treats as roller-skating in the halls and playing ping-pong on the large mahogany Dining Room table.

As the daughters grew and entertained friends, the rugs in the Great Hall would be removed for dancing. Irene encouraged her daughters to develop themselves artistically as well as academically. Margaret pursued sculpting, Ellen was a writer, and Barbara entertained crowds at the harp, piano, and organ.

George and Irene took an active part in shaping their community through their philanthropic efforts. George helped found the Cedar Rapids National Bank, and served on the boards of St. Luke's Hospital and First Presbyterian Church. Irene was a charter member of the White Cross Society and the Cedar Rapids Art Association and helped found the Junior League.

Each was a trustee of Coe College - Irene having the distinction of being the first woman to serve in that role. Irene also supported regional artists and craftsmen, including Grant Wood and Marvin Cone.

In 1937, 14 years after the death of her husband, Irene died in the house she had made a home. She bequeathed the Brucemore estate to her eldest daughter, Margaret Douglas Hall.

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Douglas & Co.

George Bruce Douglas played a significant role in the industrial development of Cedar Rapids, creating what would become one of the largest cornstarch plants in the world.

Developments in technology and transportation in the mid-to-late 1800s extended commerce west. Iowa, as a largely rural state, was a natural fit for the growth of agribusiness, made possible by expanding railroad networks. Trains moved goods to the East Coast and on to international markets. The railroads also brought immigrants to Cedar Rapids and provided a stable labor force.

George first worked in his father's cereal business, Douglas and Stuart, which became The Quaker Oats Company. In 1894, George and his brother Walter became business partners and started Douglas & Company which produced linseed oil. In 1899, they sold the business to pursue other enterprises. In 1903, they began Douglas Starch Works, which produced cooking starch and oil, laundry starch, animal feed, soap stock, and industrial starches.

Read more about Douglas & Co.

The company grew rapidly and was the largest starch works company in the world by 1914. At the time, it employed 400 people and ground 10,000 bushels of corn per day.

Rationing during World War I increased the demand for corn products as an alternative to butter or lard. The U.S. Food Administration encouraged substituting corn for wheat products, increasing the company's revenue.

Corn oil and cornstarch became essential cooking items for homemakers, bakers, and cooks who used them to make puddings, pie fillings, sauces, and baked goods. Millions of potential customers could see Douglas & Company products in Good Housekeeping, The Ladies' Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post.

The business ended tragically with the worst industrial accident in Cedar Rapids' history. On May 22, 1919, just as the 109 night workers replaced the 327-member day shift, a devastating explosion leveled the starch works.

A pillar of dust and flame shot one mile into the sky. Hundreds of windows shattered across Cedar Rapids and water mains ruptured. Parts of Douglas & Company buildings landed two miles from the site. Forty-three employees lost their lives.

Investigators concluded a fire caused grain dust to ignite and explode; however, they never identified the source of the fire. Douglas & Company purchased a grave and marker in Linwood Cemetery for any unidentified remains. Graves of the workers were decorated by the Douglas family each Memorial Day.

In 1920, Penick and Ford, a Louisiana company, purchased the Douglas & Company site. The company is now known as Penford Products and continues to produce industrial starch today. A product line continues to use the Douglas name in honor of the original owners.

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The Douglas family on the Titanic

Shortly after midnight on April 15, 1912, more than 1,500 passengers and crew on the R.M.S. Titanic perished as the ship sank 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. In Cedar Rapids, attention focused on the Douglas family.

George Douglas' brother and sister-in-law, Walter and Mahala Douglas, had been on a three-month trip to Europe after spending Christmas at Brucemore with family. The couple was celebrating Walter's retirement and purchasing furnishings for their home in Walden, on Lake Minnetonka near Minneapolis.

They bought first-class tickets for themselves and Mahala's French maid, Berthe Leroy, to return home aboard the Titanic in time to celebrate Walter's birthday with family.

Read about the Douglas family and the Titanic

Walter and Mahala had just returned to their suite on the Titanic from the first-class dining room when they heard the engines stop. Mahala asked Walter to inquire about the reason and put on her fur coat and heavy boots to wait in the hallway.

Seeing no officers and receiving no orders, she became concerned and went to her cabin for a life preserver. Walter returned and teased her about the preserver, but agreed they should go on deck together. They watched as the distress rockets shot high into the air and burst into a shower of light.

Passengers on deck remained calm as they boarded the lifeboats. Eventually, they decided Mahala should get into one of the boats. Climbing aboard, she requested that Walter join her.

He replied, "No; I must be a gentleman," and turned away to join a group of men waiting for a later boat. Walter was last seen standing on the deck of the Titanic wearing his tuxedo. Mahala recalled him helping women and children into the final lifeboats.

Initial reports were sparse and contradictory. The limits of wireless communication and the isolation of the disaster limited accurate information. When word of the accident reached Cedar Rapids, the magnitude of the disaster and the condition of either Walter or Mahala was unknown. Diaries in the Brucemore archives document the reaction of the Douglas family awaiting news in Cedar Rapids.

Irene's entry on April 15 hints at the confusion surrounding the incident:

The news of Titanic's disaster came at noon while we were at luncheon - Did not seem serious until evening about 7:30 - spent the evening at the [Cedar Rapids] Republican [newspaper] office.

Having received no news, George and Irene left Cedar Rapids on April 16 to meet the ship carrying Titanic survivors in New York.

On April 17, The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported:

Up to 1 o'clock today no definite news had been received in Cedar Rapids concerning the fate of Mr. Walter D. Douglas.... The wireless telegraph companies having great trouble in effecting communication with the Carpathia.... It appears that a considerable number of the first and second cabin passengers, especially the men, must have perished, but it is still hoped that Mr. Douglas was among the ones rescued. Mrs. Douglas is on the Carpathia, but whether Mr. Douglas went down with the boat, as did many others of the male passengers, remains to be determined.

In New York on April 18, thousands of people waited in the rain as the ship bearing the 713 survivors slowly approached the dock. Irene's entry for that date reflected the answer to the question the family and their community had been asking, "Carpathia landed 7 in the eve. Walter not with Mahala."

On April 23, eight days after the sinking, the Douglas family received word that Walter's body had been recovered by the cable ship MacKay Bennett and identified by his shirt and cigarette case, both monogrammed "WDD." The ship's crew recorded the following information:

  • No. 62 - MALE - Estimated age, 55 - Hair grey
  • Clothing - Evening dress, with "W.D.D." on shirt.
  • Effects - Gold watch; chain; gold cigarette case "W.D.D."; five gold studs; wedding ring on finger engraved "May 19th '84"; pocket letter case with $551.00 and one pound; 5 note cards.
  • First Class
  • Name - Walter D. Douglas, Minneapolis

Walter's remains were taken first to his home in Minneapolis, then, via a special train, to Cedar Rapids for entombment in the Douglas family vault at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Mahala returned to her home on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, accompanied only by Berthe Leroy. An advocate of arts and culture, she turned her estate into a showplace for extravagant gardens and furnishings collected from around the world. Mahala supported many local groups and charities, including a donation in Walter's name to Coe College.

Salvaging the Titanic

In 1996, R.M.S Titanic Inc., the company that owns salvage rights to the doomed vessel, attempted to raise a section of the ship's structure from the ocean floor.

As it fell back into the deep, it landed upright in the muddy seabed, affording the crew their first look at the side that had landed face down 84 years earlier.

Historians originally identified the piece as the wall of a first-class berth unoccupied on the voyage. With their new perspective, they discovered their earlier identification had been incorrect. The large piece had actually been part of berth C-86 occupied by Walter and Mahala Douglas.

In August 1998, Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel aired a primetime special featuring the story of the successful salvage of this large section of the Titanic. Central to the hour-long segment was an interview at Brucemore with Borden Stevens, grandniece of Walter and Mahala.

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The Douglas family servants

Domestic servants were integral to every part of the Brucemore estate. During the years the Douglas family made Brucemore their home, at least ten servants were employed at any given time to clean the house, care for the children, cook the meals, maintain the grounds, greet visitors, wash and iron clothing, and a variety of other duties.

The hired help supported the family's lifestyle and allowed the Douglases to pursue recreational hobbies, artistic work, and community service. In the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries, many live-in domestic servants worked for wealthy and middle class families.

With the lady of the house freed of house work, she was able pursue cultural activities and become involved in her community. Most families employed one servant known as a "maid-of-all-work." In Cedar Rapids, a small number had two servants, and an exclusive group hired three or more servants.

The Douglases, a family of five, employed one or two maids, a butler, a cook, a nanny, a coachman or chauffeur, and a head gardener who supervised five to eight men on the grounds. Although the Brucemore staff was quite sophisticated for Cedar Rapids, it was small compared to those of their peers in other areas of the nation.

Read about the Douglas family's servants

Like other large homes built in the 1880s, the Brucemore Mansion had clearly defined areas for family and staff, including separate entrances, dining areas, bathrooms, and staircases. Concealed workspaces and living quarters made the servants virtually invisible to the family and their guests. Designed to be simple and functional, the servants' side allowed for the most efficient use of an employee's time.

Servants working for the Douglases and other families across the country were expected to follow a strictly defined behavioral code and standard of work. They were required to be neatly dressed, polite, and maintain a calm disposition at all times.

Workdays were long as hired help would wake up before the family to clean the main rooms of the home, prepare breakfast, and serve family members as soon as they awoke. A servant's day would continue until the family retired for the night.

Due to the long hours, housing was provided for essential staff. Servants working inside the house (maids, butler, and cook) generally lived on the third floor of the Mansion.

The head gardener and house staff with families lived onsite in the Servants' Duplex. The Duplex was part of a small "village" that consisted of support and recreation buildings, including a greenhouse, barn, chicken coop, and squash court that later served as a bookbindery.

A different perspective

The stories and roles of the Douglases' servants help provide another perspective on life at Brucemore:

Ella McDannel - Nanny

One employee, Ella McDannel, had a very close relationship with the Douglas family. Fondly named "Danny the Nanny" by the Douglas girls, Danny worked for the family for over 20 years.

An American-born woman, she was the same age as Irene and had a nursing degree. The Douglases hired her in January of 1909, one month after Barbara's birth. Her bedroom was on the second floor next to the nursery and her primary duties involved caring for the three girls.

In her diary, she documented their milestones, illnesses, birthday parties, sleepovers, and other events, as well as her daily activities and those of other servants. Danny's diary suggests that the staff shared some duties even though most multi-servant households were very specialized.

Her other tasks included washing Mrs. Douglas' hair, cleaning, dusting, mending, and sewing. The second longest standing employee, she left the family by 1930, but remained in contact with them for the rest of her life.

Bert Batten - Chauffer

Bert Batten was the first member of his family to work at Brucemore followed by his brother and sister-in-law. The Battens came to the United States from England in 1912.

Bert began working for the Douglases in 1915 and stayed until Irene's death in 1937, surpassing all other servants in length of employment. As the chauffeur, Bert's role was to drive and maintain the family's vehicles.

Alfred and Ivy Batten - Butler and Maid

Bert's brother and sister-in-law, Alfred and Ivy Batten, served as butler and maid for 11 years.

Alfred's position gave him seniority over the other house staff. His responsibilities included answering the door, serving formal meals in the Dining Room, and taking care of the silver and other precious items stored in the Butler's Pantry.

Ivy's duties included helping Irene bathe and dress, as well as general straightening and cleaning. Alfred and Bert's sisters and nieces worked for the Douglases when extra help was needed for large parties.

Mabel Seay - Cook

A Swedish cook, Mabel Seay managed the kitchen and the elaborate, formal dinners at Brucemore. Additional maids most likely assisted her with the more tedious aspects of food preparation, as well as washing dishes.

Archie White - Head Gardener

The head gardener was an important member of the staff and usually the highest paid employee onsite. Archie White, the Douglases' last head gardener, worked for the family for nearly 16 years.

His job included selecting plants, operating the Greenhouse, and planning the care of the grounds. In the spring and summer, he supervised five or more gardeners. In the winter, his responsibilities included snow removal and firing up the boilers in the Mansion.

As a knowledgeable gardener, Irene trusted Archie completely with the care of the gardens and grounds. While away from Brucemore, she wrote to him about maintenance issues and interesting plants she had seen during her travels.

Archie, who was born in Jamaica, British West Indies, married Jeanie Hepburn in Cedar Rapids. They raised their children Agnes and Edward in the Servants' Duplex.

Social and cultural changes

The Douglases lived in a time when changes in society and culture made hiring, managing, and keeping servants more difficult. Although domestic service often paid better than factory or department store work, the lack of personal freedom, unpredictable and long hours, and social stigma discouraged women from taking these positions.

As a result, employers frequently turned to immigrants and minority populations as a source of help. By the 1920s, the servant pool became even more limited due to World War I and immigration restrictions.

While middle class housewives stopped hiring live-in servants in favor of new household appliances and day workers, wealthy families continued to hire live-in servants to illustrate social status and maintain their larger homes and estates.

Iowa, like other Midwestern states, had smaller servant populations than the Northeast and South. In Linn County, many Bohemian and German immigrants, along with American-born girls, worked as servants. Having male servants signified a high social position; therefore, men generally filled positions that required them to be visible to family and guests such as the butler or chauffeur.

The lives of individual servants often can be difficult to trace. In some cases, city directories and census records may provide the only source of information. Fortunately, the stories of several servants at Brucemore have been preserved through sources like diaries, photos, letters, account books, and other documents.

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