Rennaissance Man James Ford Bell Was Waterfowl Hunting's Unsung Hero
By Tori J. McCormick, Associate Editor
James Ford Bell going on a Delta Marsh hunt.
(Photo Courtesy the Archives of Manitoba)
On Fridays at 8 p.m., James Ford Bell would board a train in Minneapolis for Heron Lake, in extreme southwest Minnesota. This was during the crisp and multi-hued splendor of autumn in the early 1900s, when Bell's beloved canvasbacks would show up there in logic-defying concentrations.
By 1921, when Heron Lake's glory days had begun to wane, Bell would board another train in Minneapolis, it chugging in roughly the opposite direction for the canvasback-rich and famous Ten Mile Lake road pass at Dalton, near Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
"…my father was a very acute individual who had an ability to look into the future and see how things were likely to turn out," said Charlie Bell, in a 1995 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about his father. "And he was right more often than he was wrong."
Bell was prophetic about Heron and Ten Mile Lake—the regal canvasbacks that controlled his retrospection as a waterfowler would decline precipitously at both venues to less-than-modest fall flights. That's why Bell, in what was originally a calculated effort to nurture the waterfowling heritage of his three sons, purchased property at Manitoba's Delta Marsh, the era's North American epicenter for canvasback production, and hunting.
James Ford Bell's story could have easily ended with him and his sons blissfully gunning canvasbacks at Delta Marsh, with nary a compelling historical footnote. But JFB, as he was often called, was no ordinary man or duck hunter.
The founder of General Mills in Minneapolis, JFB was a visionary entrepreneur, pioneering philanthropist, layman scientist and committed conservationist. He was, as many of his contemporaries pointed out, a Renaissance man—indeed, in addition to his lifelong devotion to scientific research, he was a tireless advocate for the humanities, and his hobbies were as varied as caviar and beef jerky—who sized up problems quickly and took decisive action to fix them.
His lifelong credo: "Think it big and keep it simple."
JFB's simple, seven-word philosophical belief "guided him through a lifetime of bringing order to the milling industry, of publishing research in widely scattered fields and of pursuing a number of hobbies," according to one published account.
With his characteristic heightened sense of public obligation, JFB, who witnessed drought ravage the breeding grounds throughout the 1930s, felt duty-bound to change the course of waterfowl management.
Strip away all the details and you have a philanthropist setting an extraordinarily high bar: JFB donated the land, helped finance and provided the intellectual vigor, tenacity and imagination for what would become North America's most prestigious waterfowl scientific research facility, the Delta Waterfowl Research Station at Delta Marsh. In doing so, JFP helped put meat on the bones of a field of study that heretofore was a skeleton. Perhaps more than any demographic, waterfowl hunters in particular owe JFB—waterfowl hunting's unsung hero—a debt of gratitude.
James Ford Bell was born August 15, 1879, in Philadelphia, PA. His father, James Stroud Bell, was one of the nation's leading flour merchants. When JFB was 9 years old, his father moved the family to Minneapolis. In 1901, JFB graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in chemistry. A year later, JFB married Louise Heffelfinger of Minneapolis. They had three sons, all of them waterfowler hunters, and a daughter.
Understanding who James Ford Bell was, and why he was instrumental in keeping the Delta Waterfowl Research Station functioning during some very lean, tumultuous years, is impossible without examining his life as "corporate citizen." JFB was an idea man who seemed to be one step ahead of the competition or any bureaucracy.
Understanding what made JFB tick required wading through numerous old books, handwritten letters, faded newspaper stories and other reference material, most of which were categorized in boxes—many, many boxes—at the Archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Reenacting someone's life in this fashion can be as laborious as piecing together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. But sometimes one correspondence—in this case, a quote— distills the essence of a man.
JFB died on May 7, 1961, just twelve days after his wife passed away. He was 81. In a newspaper obituary, Gerald Kennedy, who at the time was the chairman of the board for General Mills, said of JFB:
"He was a man of insatiable intellectual curiosity. He was never satisfied with the present except as it prepared for the future. Research was his lodestar.
"No conflict of interest ever diverted him from his appointed task. He was single-minded in his determination to accept nothing but the best.
"The food industry, education, the arts, basic research and a wide circle of friends will keenly miss him now and in the years ahead."
JFB's lifelong belief in, and devotion to, science and innovation first bubbled to the surface at the University of Minnesota. As a student under Prof. Harry Snyder, JFB "created the first laboratory testing for flour," according to one newspaper account.
That theme—making grand discoveries through scientific exploration—would resurface over and over again in his business dealings and work with the Delta Waterfowl Research Station.
JFB's innovative spirit, tireless work ethic and aversion to mediocrity helped him rise quickly in the milling industry. He was helped by his father, who was president of Washburn-Crosby Co., which was "the catalyst for the creation" of General Mills.
At age 30, JFB took a job with the company and six years later, in 1915, he became vice president following the death of his father. He was a rising star, and recognition soon landed at his doorstep in 1916, when he was appointed chairman of the milling industry division of the United States Food Administration, created to address problems caused by World War I.
Bell resigned from Washburn-Crosby and "devoted all his energies" to promoting the slogan—"Food Will Win the War." From New York, roughly two million barrels of flour were shipped each month to the allies. It's estimated, according to one newspaper account, that "Bell's contribution, along with the voluntary cooperation of the nation's millers in helping stabilize food prices, saved the public a half a billion dollars during World War I."
In 1919, Bell returned to Washburn-Crosby and worked "feverishly" throughout the early 1920s on the Eat More Wheat campaign, which, according to one account, he promoted "with all the verve a showman."
In 1925, JFB became company president, and immediately began formulating a plan to consolidate the milling industry and make it economically stable as profits "shrunk dangerously" low.
At the time, JFB served on at least a dozen boards, traveled extensively for business and ran an office. He was a man seemingly in constant motion, and found little time on what his closest colleagues jokingly called his "magnum opus" for the milling industry.
JFB's home life didn't lend itself to critical thinking either, what with four children, their friends and musical instruments constantly in play. But "The Chief," as he was sometimes called by his closest associates, improvised. As the story goes, one evening he retired to the family bathroom and locked the door. Sequestered inside, he wrote the "outline" for forming General Mills," according to one of his obituaries.
In 1928, General Mills was formed and JFB became its president. The stock market crash of 1929 devastated many businesses, but General Mills "entered a period of steady and solid growth" because JFB's bathroom-inspired plan was so soundly conceived.
Running a multi-million company never dampened his enthusiasm for science and research. In fact, his belief that "one must follow where research leads" guided General Mills into numerous successful fields, including vitamins, industrial chemicals, soybean products, starches, refrigerated foods, ready-mix cakes, even polyethylene balloons.
When in 1934 JFB resigned as president and became chairman of the board, his conscience as a waterfowler had fully flowered. JFB had watched two of his favorite canvasback haunts—at Heron Lake and Ten Mile Pass—decline significantly. His subsequent purchase of land at Delta Marsh, a shallow, 40,000-acre pool at the lower end of Lake Manitoba, for hunting could not hide the fact that canvasback numbers (among other species) were beginning to crash. The drought of the Dirty '30s and habitat degradation were taking their toll.
JFB approached waterfowl conservation the same way he approached his business life—with a highly evolved social conscience. As a "corporate citizen" he believed he had a responsibility to the public. And, as a waterfowler/conservationist, he believed he had to give back as much as he took, if not more.
Wrote JFB, "When I first went to Delta there were no limits except those which were self-imposed. Despite this freedom, we did set limits, both as to the amount and to the number of shells to be used in getting that limit. Still it troubled me to think that we were destroying without making some effort at replenishment. It occurred to me that it would be possible by artificial means to put back into the air as many or more ducks as were killed."
In the early 1930s, the study of waterfowl, particularly on the breeding grounds, was nonexistent. The only documented research was on waterfowl diseases and the birds' wintering grounds. But JFB was thinking big again, and during this period he conceived the idea to build a hatchery at Delta Marsh to replenish duck stocks. His goal: raise and release as many wild birds as he and his friends killed each hunting season.
In 1937, when JFB's desire to restore duck populations through propagation proved unsuccessful, not all was lost. He probably didn't know it at the time, but his effort would significantly enhance our understanding of waterfowl and waterfowl management.
JFB quickly realized that the best hope for sustaining and increasing waterfowl populations for future generations was through scientific research, specifically developing an understanding of the birds' behavior.
Wrote JFB, "…we must go deeper into the matter to have an understanding of the various phases of their lives."
JFB wasn't merely paying lip service to yet another big idea. He offered his Delta hunting property, poured in thousands of dollars and appealed to the American Wildlife Institute (AMI) to help establish a scientific research facility. An ordinary philanthropist he was not.
At the time, Aldo Leopold was an AWI technical advisor, and he opposed propagation and would not endorse the research facility. But years of brokering business deals with measured, persuasive oratory made JFB uniquely suited to close yet another. In April of 1938, JFB and Dr. Miles Pirnie of Michigan State University, who earlier that year visited Delta Marsh and was "amazed at the facilities and the opportunities" to conduct research, met with Leopold in Minneapolis. During the meeting, they convinced Leopold that scientific research on waterfowl and waterfowl habitat, not propagation, was their primary goal.
When he learned that Bell was not "interested exclusively in artificial propagation" and desired "to offer his plant and property for any research on waterfowl," Leopold enthusiastically backed the idea, as did AWI.
Leopold then sent one of his Cornell University graduate students, the gifted H. Albert Hochbaum, to Delta Marsh to serve as its first director. AWI kicked in $9000 for his salary.
Thanks to JFB's visionary spirit and determination, the Delta Waterfowl Research Station was born, although JFB's work was far from complete.
"The chain of circumstance which produced the Delta Duck Station was as erratic as the flight of a teal," wrote Leopold in 1944. True enough. For more than a decade beginning in 1938, the station's future existed in an omnipresent state of uncertainty, and JFB was the calming, learned and level-headed influence that kept the station afloat.
It wasn't easy. JFB and the principled yet mercurial Hochbaum would become close friends—they were, in many respects, kindred spirits in how they saw the world of waterfowl—and exchanged countless letters over the years on every aspect of the research station until JFB's death in 1961.
Hochbaum, however, often clashed with AWI management, and JFB would find himself stuck in the middle trying to influence AWI decisions while helping Hochbaum realize the better angels of his nature. That delicate balancing act culminated in the late 1940s, when JFB deftly orchestrated the research station's transfer from AWI to the American Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
North America's legions of waterfowlers—from the prairies to the wintering grounds and every latitude and direction in between—have reaped the spoils of JFB's vision, generosity and "intense enthusiasms".
The influence of the Delta Waterfowl Research Station on waterfowl conservation cannot be overstated. JFB's legacy is the cutting-edge research Hochbaum and many other gifted waterfowl scientists have conducted over the years. These early researchers identified homing, re-nesting and territorial behavior, and examined the impacts of predation, botulism, crippling loss and lead-shot poisoning, among many other discoveries, including the importance of small wetlands to duck production.
JFB's letters strongly indicate he wasn't merely a spectator as this ground-breaking research materialized. Ever the scientist, layman or otherwise, JFB read the research manuscripts written by Hochbaum's students, discussed it endlessly in letters to Hochbaum and others, and, where applicable, championed its use in waterfowl management. A voracious reader, JFB would routinely pass on scientific articles in other fields to Hochbaum as well, believing, it can be assumed, that there was something to be learned from them.
JFB's research legacy lives on today in Delta's graduate research program, where hundreds of alumnus from across North America have advanced our understanding of waterfowl and waterfowl habitat immeasurably. Many have gone on to have illustrious careers—JFB's disciples, as one waterfowl scientist put it—a veritable Who's Who in waterfowl management.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote if history were told in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. The story of James Ford Bell story should never be forgotten, because it illustrates how one man with insatiable curiosity and big ideas and a penchant for "following the science" can change the course of history.
JFB, the man who was more often right than he was wrong, did just that.