Sometimes I picture the late James Ford Bell sitting in a duck blind at Heron Lake in extreme southwest Minnesota, or at Ten Mile Lake road pass near Fergus Falls, or at historic Delta Marsh in Manitoba.
I see a string of canvasback decoys set and listing in the water. I see Bell, perhaps with a cigar dangling from his lips and a Parker boom stick cradled in his arms, watching the horizon for his beloved canvasbacks to appear, their snowy-white bellies buffeting the inky waters as they follow the string into shotgun range.
Who was James Ford Bell? Minnesotans today might recognize his name from the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. The founder of General Mills in Minneapolis, Bell also was an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a lay scientist, an avid sportsman and a conservationist who helped shape the history of waterfowling and waterfowl management in North America. To me, JFB, as he was often called, is waterfowling's unsung hero, a man to whom waterfowlers everywhere owe a debt of gratitude.
I first learned of Bell's contributions to waterfowling in 2011. At the time, I was working for the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, a waterfowl-conservation organization based in Bismarck, N.D. My editor and I were tasked with writing a special magazine commemorating Delta's 100-year anniversary.
My editor found out about a trove of information on display at the Archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg. The Hochbaum collection, named after Delta's first and longest-serving scientific director, Albert Hochbaum, contained 44 cardboard boxes of letters, reports, manuscripts, essays, artwork and photos that helped us fill the holes of Delta's rich, and sometimes controversial, history. The collection also made one thing abundantly clear: Delta Waterfowl would not exist if not for James Ford Bell.
During my research, when I read reams of Bell's letters, I was struck by how devoted he was to scientific exploration ("one must follow where research leads," he was quoted as saying numerous times) and by how seriously he took his role as a hunter-conservationist. He believed he needed to give back as much as he took, if not more.
Bell's conscience as a waterfowler had fully flowered by 1934 when he resigned as president of General Mills and became chairman of its board. He had started out as a teenager hunting ducks in the marshes at what's now 26th Street and Park Avenue S. in Minneapolis. Over the years, he had watched two of his favorite canvasback haunts — at Heron Lake and Ten Mile Pass — decline significantly. He subsequently bought some hunting land at Delta Marsh, a shallow 40,000-acre pool at the lower end of Lake Manitoba and probably the best canvasback haunt in North America at the time. Even on this rich habitat, Bell still could see that canvasback numbers were falling. The drought of the Dirty '30s and habitat degradation were taking their toll.
A fledgling field of study
Still, Bell's story could have easily ended with him happily and contentedly gunning canvasbacks at Delta Marsh, with nary a compelling historical footnote. Instead he donated the land while helping to finance and providing the vision for what would become North America's most prestigious waterfowl scientific research facility, the Delta Waterfowl Research Station at Delta Marsh. In doing so, Bell helped put meat on the bones of a fledgling field of study.
The study of waterfowl hardly existed in the 1930s. The only documented research was on waterfowl diseases and the birds' wintering grounds. But Bell had a big idea: to build a hatchery at Delta Marsh and replenish duck populations. His goal: Raise and release at least as many birds as he and his friends killed each hunting season.
Wrote Bell, "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 1937, when Bell's ideas about replenishment proved unsuccessful, he quickly pivoted and concluded the best hope to sustain and increase waterfowl populations 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."
In this endeavor, Aldo Leopold, widely regarded as the father of North American wildlife management, was employed. A University of Wisconsin professor at the time, Leopold rejected Bell's initial offer because he wasn't in favor of any endeavor that involved the artificial propagation of ducks. In a meeting in Minneapolis in April 1938, Bell convinced Leopold that his primary goal was scientific research, not propagation. Leopold was sold, and later that year would pick one of his graduate students, the aforementioned Albert Hochbaum, to run the research station. Hochbaum retired in 1970.
The influence of the Delta Waterfowl Research Station on waterfowl conservation cannot be overstated. Bell's legacy is the cutting-edge research by Hochbaum and many other waterfowl scientists — a legacy that endures via Delta's graduate research program, where countless alumni from across North America have advanced our knowledge and understanding of waterfowl and waterfowl habitat. These researchers, particularly the early ones, 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.
Bell's letters strongly indicate he wasn't merely funding the research. A voracious reader with an insatiable curiosity, Bell devoured research manuscripts by Hochbaum and his students and discussed them endlessly in letters to Hochbaum and others. Where applicable, Bell championed their research for use in waterfowl management.
Bell died in 1961. He was 81. As waterfowlers gaze the horizon this season, from duck blinds across Minnesota, give JFB a nod of thanks. He deserves it.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at email@example.com.