Montgomery Bell

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Montgomery Bell (January 3, 1769, Chester County, Pennsylvania – April 1, 1855, Dickson County, Tennessee) was a manufacturing entrepreneur who was crucial to the economic development of early Middle Tennessee. He was known as the "Iron Master of the Harpeth" and the "Iron Master of Middle Tennessee".

Early life[edit]

Bell received very little formal education during his childhood but served a three-year apprenticeship to a leather tanner. He was later instructed in hatmaking by an older brother and apparently practiced this trade with some success during his teen years. Just before turning 20 he left Pennsylvania for Lexington, Kentucky, where an older sister had recently been widowed. He established himself as a hatmaker in the area, paying for the education of his sister's children and at times employing as many as 20 other people before deciding to move further south.

Businessman[edit]

Greatly interested in the industrial potential of water power, Bell was drawn to Middle Tennessee, where there were sizable streams and an abundance of iron ores, particularly hematite, in some areas. In 1804 Bell purchased James Robertson's iron works at Cumberland Furnace for the then-large sum of $16,000, soon expanding them into one of the largest operations of the sort in the entire Southern United States. He also built other furnaces and mills, notably a hammer mill south of Charlotte on Jones Creek, where the water was diverted through a limestone dam built by slave labor.

By 1808 Bell was advertising in Nashville newspapers to buy wood at 50 cents per cord. Bell was greatly enriched by a government contract for cannonballs for use in the War of 1812; cannonballs made at his Cumberland Furnace works were those used by Andrew Jackson's forces in the Battle of New Orleans. Apparently at least some of this wealth was reinvested in what is generally considered to be his greatest project at the "Narrows of the Harpeth", which he called "Pattison Forge" after his mother's maiden name (a nearby historical marker misidentifies it as "Patterson Forge"). Here, Bell, again using slave labor, blasted a tunnel approximately 100 yards (91 m) long [state park signs at the tunnel give its length as 200 feet] through a narrow limestone and sandstone ridge across a point where the Harpeth River made a seven-mile (11 km) horseshoe bend. The resulting power ran Bell's iron milling operations and was so successful that apparently some previous projects, such as the Jones Creek mill, were eventually abandoned. Bell eventually made the Narrows the site of the headquarters of all of his operations and built a home there. Apparently he suffered some financial reverses due to the Panic of 1819 and its aftermath; in 1824 he advertised the Narrows and other of his properties for sale in the Nashville Whig newspaper, but at least the Narrows property was not sold at this time, nor in his lifetime. Subsequent looting, flooding, and the effects of time have meant that the only remaining evidence of this large operation today is the tunnel, which still remains and is part of a state park, and some slag.

Character[edit]

Bell was noted for sharp business practices; it was said of him that he would never pay a debt unless sued for it. He was also reputed to frequent prostitutes and to force his attentions upon female slaves. Earlier in his life he was also quick to whip male slaves for the slightest offense and was noted for the ferocity with which he would pursue those who ran away; later in his life he came to regard slavery as a great moral wrong and at the time of his death was in the process of freeing his slaves and arranging passage for many of them to Liberia. He seemingly had a particularly warm relationship with one slave, James Worley, whom he had acquired while in Lexington and who apparently had great ability as an engineer and who came to be regarded by Bell as more of a colleague and associate than a servant. Bell even named one of his iron works "Worley Furnace" in his honor, a very unusual honor for an African-American in the early 19th century. When, during a business trip to New Orleans, Bell was asked what he would take in trade for Worley, Bell reportedly replied, "I would not take all of New Orleans for him!"

Bell was always somewhat distant toward other people. Upon his arrival in the area, he had been one of the persons involved in the organization of the first Dickson County government, but Bell seemingly had little real interest in, or talent for, politics. He never married, and apparently never had any truly close friends other than, conceivably, the aforementioned Worley. As he aged, he became more secretive, even reclusive. He also lived a miserly existence, to the extent that, according to a witness, at the time of his death at the Narrows property snow was blowing onto his deathbed through a broken window that he had never arranged to have had repaired, despite his having, according to an inventory of his estate completed two years after his death, a net worth in cash and receivables alone in excess of $72,000. Bell was buried near the Narrows property in a cemetery in what was then still Dickson County; with the establishment of Cheatham County in the year following his death the place of his death and burial were included in the new county, not the one that he had for so long called home.

Legacy[edit]

Bell, always cognizant of the formal education that he had been deprived of, left at his death $20,000 toward "the education of children not less than ten nor more than fourteen years old who are not able to support and educate themselves and whose parents are not able to do so." This was the foundational grant for Tennessee's excellent and prestigious college preparatory school, Montgomery Bell Academy, although the above stipulations have not been adhered to. In addition to this institution, a state park [not the one at the Narrows property but another one about 15 miles (25 km) west, located on the site of several iron works in which he may have had an interest] is named in his honor and the Montgomery Bell Bridge over the Harpeth River just above its confluence with the Cumberland River near Ashland City, Tennessee on Tennessee State Route 49.

References[edit]

  • Corlew, Robert E., A History of Dickson County (Nashville, 1956, reprinted 1980), Tennessee Historical Society

External links[edit]