When an estimated 150,000 Minnesotans assemble on Saturday in
marshes and swamps, along lakes and on passes separating two or more
of these waterways, they will continue a duck and goose hunting
tradition that is as old as the state itself.
No state or province in North America can claim as many
waterfowlers as Minnesota, and few, if any, can boast of as many
Certainly Chesapeake Bay has its duck and goose hunting
histories. So, too, Louisiana, the Gulf Coast of Texas and
But unique among these and all states is Minnesota, to which,
in the 1880s, many Europeans came each year - in spring - to shoot
ducks and geese returning north.
These gunners braved 10-day steamship rides from Europe to New
York and three-day trips by rail to Minnesota before turning north,
toward Fergus Falls, where, in April, their double-barreled guns
would boom from morning until night.
Into this environment traveled, in 1888, James Stroud Bell ,
coming from Philadelphia to Minneapolis not as an outdoorsman but as
a successful flour broker. Bell would assume leadership of the
Washburn Milling Co., which later became the Washburn Crosby Co.,
which, on June 22, 1928, became the catalyst for the creation of a
national flour company called General Mills.
Bell was not an outdoorsman. But his only child, James Ford
Bell , would become an outdoorsman and a bird hunter whose interest
in, and love for, ducks helped shaped waterfowling history in
Minnesota and the world.
"When my father was a boy of 16 or so, he would walk to the
marshes that existed at the time at what is now 26th and Park Avenue
in Minneapolis, to hunt ducks," said Charles (Charlie) Bell , one of
three sons of James Ford Bell .
Charlie Bell , 88, lives in California, but was in Minneapolis
this week and talked about the times that helped shape Minnesota's
waterfowling traditions. "Heron Lake was where father and his
friends hunted first," Charlie Bell said. "The canvasbacks down
there were plentiful. I remember on Fridays, we would get on the
train at 8 p.m. in Minneapolis, headed for Heron Lake. I was 9 years
old when I was first taken there. Our dogs were crated and loaded
into the baggage car, and we all took berths, so we could sleep on
the way down. We would arrive about 2 a.m., unload the dogs and our
other gear, and be driven to our hunting club, ready to be on the
lake before dawn."
On those autumn days, Heron Lake, in extreme southwest
Minnesota, would be inundated with ducks - oversized flocks of
canvasbacks, one flight arriving after another, the big birds eying
a set of decoys with little wariness before cupping their wings,
banking hard and settling in.
So enraptured with Heron Lake and its surroundings was James
Ford Bell that in 1910 he commissioned the famed Louis Agassiz
Fuertes to paint, in watercolor, the canvasbacks there. Titled
"Canvasbacks - Heron Lake," the painting now is in a vault at the
James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of
"I'm not certain exactly why, but in 1921, my father switched
hunting areas, leaving Heron Lake for the famous Ten-Mile-Lake road
pass at Dalton near Fergus Falls," Charlie Bell said. "I don't know
if it was that the hunting had declined significantly at Heron Lake,
but it might have been. Or it could have been that the hunting near
Fergus Falls was just that much better. Whatever the case, 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. And he was right
more often than wrong. So it could have been that he simply wanted
to be ahead of the times when Heron Lake no longer would provide the
kind of hunting he had come to enjoy."
James Ford Bell was, of course, correct about Heron Lake and
its eventual decline as a waterfowling mecca. This year, Heron and a
few surrounding waters are the only places in Minnesota where
canvasback hunting is not allowed. The reason: The Department of
Natural Resources is attempting to rebuild the stopover traditions
that canvasbacks enjoyed at Heron Lake for the thousand or so years
that preceded this century.
Many of James Ford Bell 's friends and hunting buddies came with
him to Dalton. These included F.M. Crosby, C.C. Bovey, C.D. Velie,
Fred Atkinson and others - each of them successful, some of them
wildly so, in their businesses.
In this respect, these men were representative of an era when
the field sports largely belonged to America's upper classes.
Whereas today, relatively few of the nation's rich and powerful call
themselves sportsmen, at the turn of the century, the ability to
shoulder a Boss or a Parker or a Purdey double and shoot it well was
a sign of proper education and proper breeding.
"My father taught me to shoot beginning at 9 years of age,"
Charlie Bell said. "My first gun was a Parker 16. He also taught his
three boys to fly-fish at a young age. We would stand on the dock
and he would place a book underneath our casting arms, and we were
instructed, as we cast, not to allow that book to drop."
When hunting near Fergus Falls, James Ford Bell , his sons and
friends again would board a train on Friday afternoon in
Minneapolis. By this time, the water spaniel was the dog of choice
among these hunters, and crates of them were loaded in baggage cars
- the animals' anticipation of the weekend being no less keen than
that of their owners.
"Simultaneous with taking a hunting club at Dalton, father
believed that if he were to preserve duck hunting for his three
sons, he would have to go farther north, still," Charlie Bell said.
"That's when he first began buying land around the Delta Marsh,
northwest of Winnipeg. He knew that, as a non-Canadian, he might
have trouble buying as much land as he wanted to buy, so he had two
lawyers in Winnipeg put the land in their names."