West Fork Blacksmith, James William Bell

James William Bell was born September 6, 1852, to William John and Mary Frances (Boggs) Bell. William’s family lived in Kentucky at the time he was born, but he had moved to Missouri before he married Mary there in 1846. Their son James was born in Missouri. William died at Anderson, McDonald County, Missouri between 1876 and 1880.

Upon the death of his father, James moved to the fledgling village of West Fork in Washington County, Arkansas, where he met and married Lucinda Linda Epps on December 2, 1879. Their children were Edna Mae (Bell) Latham (1880-1953) and Thomas Tillman Bell (1889-1973). The 1900 census shows the family household at West Fork with James 47, Linda 41, and Kilman 11 (Tillman). James named his occupation as blacksmith, and he and Linda owned their home without mortgage.

From the earliest record of West Fork as a formally organized town, Bell’s name appeared regularly. A group of men visiting West Fork noted, in an 1885 newspaper article, that “During our stay in West Fork, we were the guest of Mr. James Bell, the best blacksmith in the whole country, and a most excellent gentleman and citizen.” Bell was among the men who signed the petition to organize the town, submitted to the Washington County Court on May 3, 1885. His blacksmithing business was among West Fork enterprises listed in Goodspeed’s 1889 history of the county.

Bell specialized in horseshoes, but served a wide trade of needs for articles of made of metal. A history of blacksmithing in the 1800s notes:

“Blacksmiths living in the 1800s took on the roles of both tradesmen and businessmen in order to manage successful workshops and provide a variety of services. Townspeople and farmers alike valued the range of skills blacksmiths possessed and relied on them to create the tools and implements necessary for survival. Smiths could manipulate metal in endless ways, but usually created and repaired farm equipment such as hoes, plows, rakes and other tools as well as hardware and wheels for wagons, kitchen utensils and horseshoes.

“Smiths managed their businesses carefully and kept detailed records of daily work orders and the debts owed by their customers. They interacted with other business owners in their community to build solid professional networks and advertise their services. Because they worked for themselves, smiths had to skillfully negotiate their compensation, which often took the form of cash payments, traded goods, or services promised by customers skilled in other trades.

“Smiths kept their workwear simple and functional by dressing in everyday clothing and adding a leather apron to protect from stray sparks. Crafted from affordable cowhide, the apron allowed for free movement while providing essential protection. It covered the blacksmith from the waist to below the knees and sometimes split in the middle to allow smiths to cradle the leg of a horse when fitting shoes. Blacksmiths usually wore sturdy boots to protect their feet and a belt to hold their frequently used tools. Smiths did not wear gloves because they preferred direct contact with the metal being worked.”[1]

In February 1882, Bell was among nine West Fork men who served as charter members for a local chapter of the Odd Fellows lodge. In July 1883, Bell was one of men called to serve on the county’s grand jury. In 1886, he was one of three men selected by the county’s Democratic Party to serve as poll ‘judges’ for West Fork.

He regularly advertised his blacksmithing services in the Fayetteville Weekly Democrat throughout the early 1880s, stating in one 1887 ad that “Work guaranteed and done on short notice. Prices low.” Another mention in that year’s newspaper stated that “James W. Bell, of West Fork, whose handy-work furnishes the farmers in that community with the best of implements, was in the city [Fayetteville] yesterday. He was accompanied by Mrs. Bell.”[2] No advertisements are found after 1887.

In March 1907, James and Lucinda deeded a West Fork lot to “The Deacons and Elders of the Christian Church of West Fork…for church purposes only, and unto their successors in office.” The property was located in Bells’ Addition to West Fork, “beginning at the NW corner of Bell’s Addition and running south 25 degrees East 100 feet, thence East 50 feet, thence North 25 degrees West 100 feet, thence West 50 feet to the beginning, containing Lot One of Bell’s Addition.” It was further noted that “when not occupied by the Christian Church, it shall be free to any and all orthodox denominations to preach in, and when this property is not used as herein stated, this land shall fall back to the original owners, J. W. Bell and Lucinda Bell, or their heirs.”[3]

In this 1908 plat of West Fork, J. W. Bell’s property features prominently. His ‘smith shop’ is marked and their home is probably the structure shown just west of the shop.

James died April 8, 1910, at the age of 58 and is buried at the West Fork Cemetery. Lucinda died in 1958 just a few months short of her one hundredth birthday, and is buried beside James.

[1] More at https://workingtheflame.com/blacksmith-life-1800s/

[2] Fay’vl Weekly Democrat, Sept 23, 1887, p 3

[3] Deed Record 116-437, Washington County Archives, Historical Courthouse, Fayetteville, Arkansas

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