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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.
BELL, John. (Yorkshire, England, May 25, 1818--Dubuque, IA, July 31, 1896). John Bell was one of six children born to John and Ann Woodward Bell from Dyke Heads, Gunnerside, Yorkshire, England. The family came to the U.S. late in 1832, and settled in Sharon Township, Ohio. John Bell arrived in Dubuque in 1834. (1) He spent his first winter MINING. He moved to Mansfield, Ohio, but returned to Dubuque in 1837 and operated a ZINC smelter.
In the early 1840s, Bell entered the mercantile business with Pratt & Mason on Main between 2nd and 3rd Streets. He eventually sold out to Coates & Wilde and became interested in the DUBUQUE HARBOR IMPROVEMENT COMPANY and CENTRAL ISLAND IMPROVEMENT COMPANY, and was one of the leading men in these corporations.
One of John Bell's sisters, Ann Bell, married James WALLIS in 1843. In 1862 John Bell was looking for a partner in his dry goods business, so James, Ann, and their two children, Sarah Jane and John William "Will," moved to Dubuque to invest in John Bell's business. (2) In 1861 Mr. Bell with John Wallis entered the mercantile business and bought out Coates Bros. General Store at Second and Main. This company became JOHN BELL AND COMPANY. In 1864 this firm was enlarged with the addition of Mr. John Vincent RIDER and the purchase of the stock of Wood, Luke & Company whose place of business was in the old town clock building. The firm was known as Bell, Rider, Wallis Company.
In late 1864, Iowa was forced to draft soldiers during the CIVIL WAR. This led Bell to hire Florence Healey to work in his store. This proved controversial. Men declared they would not trade in the store as long as a woman worked behind the counter. They also stated that no respectable woman would shop in the store. Healey received the complete support of her brother who was serving in the Union army and Bell replied he did not care if these citizens frequented his store or not. Tempers gradually cooled, but Healey later told the story to famed feminist, Anna LAWTHER who repeated the story as a example of a woman who broke barriers to women's employment. (3)
A few years later the firm closed out of its retail department and entered on an extensive scale into the wholesale trade. Bell took a very active part until 1886 when he disposed of his interest to his partners and entered the real estate and banking businesses. He became a director of the SECOND NATIONAL BANK and president of the GERMAN TRUST AND SAVINGS BANK - a position he held one year. His wholesale and retail dry goods business, known as JOHN BELL AND COMPANY, owned the building into which the city's first TOWN CLOCK collapsed on May 25, 1872.
1. Andrea Wallis Aven. E-mail. January 18, 2016
3. Edward DECKERT and Cherba, Constance R. "Florence Healey: Dubuque's First Shop Girl," Julien's Journal, August 2011, p. 58
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