50 Years In Bruce

Don Bell didn’t know anything about Bruce, Mississippi, before being
sent here by D.L. Fair Lumber Company. Fifty years later, he couldn’t
imagine ever living anywhere else.


By JOEL McNEECE
Don Bell didn’t know anything about Bruce, Mississippi, before being sent here by D.L. Fair Lumber Company. Fifty years later, he couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else.
Bell was a senior forestry student at Mississippi State University when Fair Company called on him about a potential job. Fair Company operated a large sawmill operation in the Louisville area with more than 90,000 acres of timberland. They also had more than 22,000 acres of timberland in the Bruce area, and had previously operated a mill here.
Bell drove to Louisville to interview with Mr. Fair and was quickly given a job cruising timber. He and his wife Billie Jo, who he met in junior college,  moved to Louisville immediately.
don_bell69.jpgHe hadn’t been there long when Uncle Sam called on Oct. 16, 1956. He was ultimately sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he served for two years with a special weapons training unit. The Bells first daughter Barbara was born there in New Mexico.
Just before his service was up, Bell received a letter from Mr. Fair describing the Bruce operation and asked him to go there to manage the company’s timber.
“We loaded everything in a U-haul and came to Bruce,” Bell said. “We met Mr. (James) Ingram at a Fair Company House that sat where the Sonic currently is.”
Mr. Fair had hoped it could be the Bells’ new home, but it was in too much disrepair. They were sent to the courthouse where they met Robbie Rae Easley who suggested they go to the “Drug Store,” where Jefferys is now, and see the Henrys (Jimmy and Charlotte). They had a house off Hwy. 32 just past the current TV station offices that was available for rent.
“Mr. Langston and Russell Sanders worked on that house and got it ready for us,” Bell said. “We lived there for 10 years.”
Bell recalled those early days in Bruce when the highways to Coffeeville, Water Valley and Pontotoc were all dirt. The highway to Oxford opened the year after they arrived.
Bruce Company had a “huge” operation and the Bruce Company Store is where you did most of your shopping.
“We bought our groceries and most everything else there,” Bell said. “I bought my first Browning automatic shotgun there.”
“I remember getting all of my fabric from Arlis Miles there at Bruce Company,” Billie Jo said.
The Bells recalled the hospital was where Dr. Longest’s office is today, and that the Methodist Church was one of the more impressive features of the town.
“Mrs. Ingram took us down to the Methodist Church, and when we walked in it was so pretty,” Billie Jo said. “We were very impressed.”
Bell also continued his military service by joining the local National Guard unit. It was the 108th Armored Cavalry when he joined, and later transformed into the 223rd Engineering Battalion.
“Charles Beasley of Calhoun City was our commander when I joined,” Bell said. “We built the first  quansa huts at Camp Shelby.”
Bell was marking timber and tending to three sawmills in 1961 when he was commissioned again. The 223rd was called to active duty and sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana, at the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They spent 10 months there in support of the 49th Army Division.
“We were three days from being sent to Berlin if Khrushchev didn’t pull out,” Bell said. “That was a difficult time.”
They returned to Bruce the next August. Two years later, a new crisis arose within Fair Company. The large sawmill burned in Louisville, and Mr. Fair’s uncles, who were partners in the company despite not having forestry backgrounds, wouldn’t allow it to be rebuilt. They ultimately decided to sell out.
“It was disappointing,” Bell said.
Georgia Pacific bought up all the options and hired Bell to continue managing all the timber. They followed that purchase with more buys of all of Bruce Company’s timberland and Phillips’ Lumber Company.
“I went from managing 22,000 acres to more than 106,000,” Bell said.
All of that was ultimately purchased by Weyerhaeuser, and once again, Bell came with the timberland.
“I continued to drive the same pickup through all of these changes,” Bell laughed. “They kidded me about being part of the deed. The only thing that ever changed was the emblem on my cap.”
Bell was among the influential parties that helped bring Weyerhaeuser to Bruce. He flew around in a helicopter for three days with George Weyerhaeuser showing him all the rich hardwood.
“He didn’t want anybody to know he was here,” Bell said. “I remember one day we landed the helicopter at Turkey Creek Church to have lunch because he didn’t want to come into town fearing word might get out.”
Bell takes pride in the fact that he produced the first load of logs that went to Weyerhaeuser’s Bruce mill.
Eight years later, Weyerhaeuser was ready to move on and brought in a consultant with Challenger Gray & Christmas, a nationwide executive outplacement service, to help Bell find a new job anywhere in the country.
It was at that point Bell decided to go into business for himself. He spent the next 22 years as a forestry consultant before selling the company to Neill Kirkland.
Throughout his career, Bell has always been extremely active in the community– a trait he attributes to Mr. Fair.
“Mr. Fair insisted we get involved,” Bell said. “Community service is the backbone of Bruce. You get out what you put into it.”
Bell has been an active member of the Bruce Chamber of Commerce all of his life in Bruce. He’s been a member of the Bruce Rotary Club for 31 years with perfect attendance throughout.
Bell retired from the National Guard in 1977 after 22 years of military service, 17 of which he served as commander of the Bruce unit.
He was scoutmaster for the local Boy Scouts troop for 13 years.
He’s a past president of the Mississippi Society of American Foresters and was once honored as the State Forester of the Year. He recently completed a three-year term on the National Council of American Foresters representing Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Bell said. “Everybody I’ve ever worked for and worked with has been very supportive.”
The Bells are enjoying retirement these days, although they haven’t retired from serving the community as they remain active in the various organizations.
“This is home,” Bell said. “I can’t say it any better than that.”

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