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James Ford Bell
The James Ford Bell Library was created "to establish an historical background and knowledge of this great economic force [trade] and the part it has played and still plays in the development of the present-day world."
—James Ford Bell, 1954
James Ford Bell provided the cornerstone collection of rare books and maps that launched the library bearing his name in 1953.
Born in Philadelphia, PA, in 1879, James Ford Bell moved to Minneapolis, MN, as a boy of nine, when his father, James Stroud Bell, became the general manager of the Washburn Crosby Company. Under the elder Bell’s leadership, the company became a major force and innovator in flour milling in the Midwest, and creator of the Gold Medal flour brand.
James Ford Bell received a BS degree in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1901. Upon graduating, he joined the Washburn Crosby Company, first as a travelling salesman. He demonstrated outstanding gifts in research and management and his responsibilities in the company grew rapidly. In 1902, he married Louise Heffelfinger. The couple had four children: James Ford, Jr., Charles, Samuel and Sally.
During World War I, Bell was appointed to the Milling Division of the Food & Drug Administration. In this position he helped carry out President Herbert Hoover’s European Hunger Relief Mission following the war. For his service he received the Belgian Order of the Crown and membership in the French Legion of Honor.
Once returned to his company, Bell paved the way for several advances in business and marketing. In 1921, for example, the company created Betty Crocker, who was portrayed for decades, on-air and in person, by the intrepid Marjorie Husted, and became one of the most successful brands in United States history. In 1924, the company acquired a failed radio station and gave it the call letters WCCO. Over the years the station became a force in broadcasting in the Twin Cities. In 1925, James Ford Bell became president of the Washburn Crosby Company.
The 1920s and 30s were difficult financial years in the United States. To mitigate some of the problems of production, in 1928, Bell created General Mills, Inc. by merging the Washburn Crosby Company with several small mills across the country. General Mills focused on research and technological innovation, launching numerous brands and acquiring new companies and business ventures – including an Aeronautical Research Division in 1946. Bell was president of the company from 1928-1934, and then chairman of the board of directors from 1934-1948. General Mills continues to be a successful Fortune 500 company.
Alongside his business savvy, James Ford Bell was an early conservationist, a lifelong scientist, and a leading philanthropist. He established the James Ford Bell Foundation in 1955, to ensure the continued support of projects that were important to him. In the 1930s, Bell bought 5,000 acres of the Delta Marsh in Manitoba, Canada. There he hunted waterfowl in the fall with his wife Louise, and raised and released wild ducklings in the spring. In 1938, Bell partnered with Aldo Leopold of the University of Wisconsin (considered one of the fathers of environmental conservation in the U.S.) and William R. Rowan of the University of Alberta (a pioneer in understanding bird migration) to establish the American Wildlife Foundation, now the Delta Waterfowl Foundation. This foundation remains the world leader in waterfowl research.
Mr. Bell, during his long tenure (1938-1960) as a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, was the driving force in the building and development of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, renamed posthumously in his honor in 1966. The Bell Museum of Natural History is dedicated to gathering information about the natural world and passing it on to others in an inspiring way.
James Ford Bell's decision to leave as his legacy to the University of Minnesota a rare book library dedicated to the history and impact of trade resulted in what is now the James Ford Bell Library, a repository of more than 40,000 rare books, maps, manuscripts, and other materials that document the history and impact of trade and cultural exchange before ca. 1800 CE.