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Florence Bell

Milliner and dressmaker in De Smet; Laura Ingalls worked for Miss Bell prior to her marriage.

milliner – A person, usually a woman, who makes and sells head-dresses, hats, or bonnets, &c., for women. – Webster 1882

The ladies of the M.E. Church will give a dime sociable at the home of Miss F.E. Bell, Wednesday evening. All are invited to come and spend a pleasant evening. – Kingsbury County News, March 16, 1888

Florence Elizabeth Bell was born July 9, 1848, in Carmichaels (Greene County) Pennsylvania, the daughter of Elizabeth (Swan) and James Bell. Florence had seven siblings: Levi Harold (born 1843), Mary Olive (born 1846), Catherine Lora (born 1851), John Fremont (born 1853), Rachel Luvicy (born 1856), Amelia Margarita (born 1858), and Sarah Sarepta (born 1862).

In the summer of 1882, Florence moved to De Smet (Kingsbury County) Dakota Territory, where a sister was living. Soon, another sister, Rachel, arrived with her husband and daughter. Rachel had married Anson Wright, who came to De Smet to work for Charles Tinkham as an undertaker. In 1895, Amelia Bell became the second wife of De Smet banker, Thomas Ruth.

In October 1882, Florence Bell purchased Lot 9, Block 4 in De Smet, where she opened a fabric, dressmaking, and millinery store. A frequent advertiser in the area newspapers, one of Bell’s advertisements is shown above. Another read:

Millinery and Fancy Goods / I shall keep constantly on hand the latest in Millinery and Fancy Goods. / A complete assortment of Fichus, Scarfs and Collars, Spanish, French and plain Laces, and embroidery material. / Ribbons of all kinds, Plushes, Velvets, and Satins. / Ladies’ Furnishing Goods, Ladies’ and Children’s Hoods. / Cutting and Fitting, dressmaking and family sewing. / Florence E. Bell / Calumet Avenue, opposite Kingsbury County Bank

A piece about her appeared in a local paper during the Little House years:

MISS F.E. BELL. Dealer in millinery and dry goods, is the representative of a well stocked and well appointed establishment, and none in De Smet are more worthy of a place in this review. This house was established about four and a half years ago, and as the stock is made up exclusively of dry goods and ladies’ ware, has ever enjoyed a popular place in public esteem. The stock exhibited would be a credit to a much larger place. Spring goods will soon be put in and the showing in all departments will be kept up to their usual standard of perfection.

In These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about visiting Miss Bell’s shop and going to work for her both on the weekends (Laura was teaching school during the week) and during the summer. Laura thought Miss Bell handsome, with her tall figure and dark hair and eyes (see Chapter 16, “Summer Days”). According to Wilder family lore, Almanzo Wilder’s sister, Laura, also worked for Miss Bell during an extended visit with their sister, Eliza Jane Wilder. In the 1870s, Laura Wilder had expressed an interest in becoming a milliner. The location of Miss Bell’s shop is shown in red on the drawing at left. South of her shop was Visscher Barnes’s law office; to her north was a private residence. The large building blocking the view of the shop is the farm equipment store. The Ingallses’ town building is labeled for clarity.

Around 1892, Florence Bell married William Henry Ruth (1847-1925), younger brother of Thomas Ruth. The couple made their home in De Smet, where Will Ruth ran a feed store with Frank Harthorn. In 1880, the Ruth brothers had organized the De Smet National Bank, which was one of the first businesses in De Smet; the original bank building is still standing on Calumet Avenue. In 1885, the Ruths organized the Dakota Loan and Investment Company.

Florence Ruth died on January 25, 1906, following a sudden heart attack. Her body was sent to Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, for burial. The Ruths had no children.


Bell, Florence (THGY 16, 18, 19, 20, 28; PG)
milliner (THGY 16; PG)