George Washington Clayton, Denver’s First Big Giver
Tom Noel eloquently captures the life of Mr. Clayton, Clayton Early Learning's benefactor, in this Denver Post article.
Noel: George Washington Clayton, Denver's first big giver
In this season of giving, how many Coloradans remember the state's first major philanthropist?
The story of George Washington Clayton has been largely lost, although he shines as Colorado's first champion giver. Born on George Washington's birthday in Philadelphia in 1833, "Wash" worked in his father's store. In the spring of 1859, he set out for the Pikes Peak Diggings to open shop in the six-month-old town of Denver. On the trail, he met many bitterly disappointed "go-backers" who denounced the Colorado gold rush as a hoax. Undiscouraged, Clayton pushed on to Denver.
There, he opened a one-story business selling clothing, boots, shoes and miner's equipment at 15th and Larimer Streets. In 1882, on the same site, he built the handsome, four-story stone Clayton Building. Now better known as the Granite Building, it is a cornerstone of Larimer Square, Denver's first designated historic district.
In 1860, Clayton married Letitia Myers of Philadelphia. Their son, born in June 1861, died four months later. Clayton's sorrow doubled six months later when his wife followed his son to the grave. Clayton never remarried — and never recovered. He took both bodies back to Philadelphia for burial.
He buried his own sorrow by devoting himself to his business. Moving out of the home he had so briefly shared with a wife and child, he began living in his store. There, Clayton began amassing a vast real estate empire. As Denver's economy fluctuated wildly with booms and busts, Clayton wound up with more and more land titles and mortgages instead of cash payments.
Clayton also took a lively interest in civic matters. In 1861, he was elected to the city council, which struggled to bring law and order to the frontier village. He supported one of the city's first laws, "an ordinance prohibiting gambling and selling of liquor or merchandise on the streets or from wagons or tents."
Clayton also joined councilmen pushing for the establishment of a city jail and a public school. He served on Denver's first board of Arapahoe County commissioners and supported his brother, William, in his successful bid to become mayor of Denver in 1868.
While moonlighting in politics, Clayton mainly focused on his business. He dropped storekeeping to become Denver's biggest single property owner, shrewdly investing in downtown real estate and also in the expanding edges of Denver, including many holdings in Capitol Hill, City Park, Clayton, Park Hill, University Hills and what would become Stapleton Airport and the Denver County Jail near Smith Road and Havana Street.
On Aug. 15, 1899, Clayton was found dead at his desk in the Clayton Building. When his safe was opened, his executors found that he bequeathed most of his estate, estimated at between $2 million and $5 million, to found the George W. Clayton home and school for orphan boys.
The day after he died, The Denver Post praised Clayton as a man who "never appeared in print if he could avoid it but did anonymous acts of kindness." The Clayton College fund, The Post noted, made him Colorado's first $1 million giver and hoped his generosity would "usher in a new and long looked for era of public spirit."