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Congressman helped find his father's killer

POSTED: April 19, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Tom Bell was a man of action who served as 9th District U.S. Representative from 1905 to 1931.

He seldom if ever drove a car, usually having someone else driving for him. Once his wife, Ella, was driving him, and another car ran them off the road. "Ella, catch that car," Tom Bell is said to have told his wife. When they did, he pulled out a pistol and shot out all four tires of the offending car.

Herbert Bell, 90, of Gainesville likes to tell that story about his uncle. Herbert also used to chauffeur Tom Bell around. One time police stopped Herbert and told him he was too young to drive. After he told him he was driving for Tom Bell, the officer told him, "Move on!"

That demonstrates the considerable influence the congressman had throughout North Georgia.

Bell's Mill, which was on Little River north of Gainesville, got its name from the family. Tom bought the mill and brought Herbert's family from White County to Hall County to run it for him. The bridge over Lake Lanier at Little River still bears the Bell's Mill name.

Thomas Montgomery Bell was born in White County's Nacoochee Valley in 1861. He was a mail carrier, teacher and traveling salesman before moving to Hall County in 1898. The very next year Si Smith was accused of beating to death Tom's father, the well-known W.B. Bell. Smith's friends spirited him away to Rabun County, a posse in pursuit, but the trail grew cold.

Meanwhile, friends placed W.B. Bell's casket in the courthouse square in Cleveland before his burial, a tribute to his prominence.

As suspect Smith continued to evade capture, Tom Bell and friends Tom Bryson and Henry Towerly took up the hunt themselves. They found him hidden on Smith's father's place in Rabun County and took him to Habersham County, scene of the beating. But a judge ruled the Habersham jail wasn't safe for the suspect and sent him to Hall County for safe keeping.

Smith admitted he killed W.B. Bell, but contended it was justified. One steamy night in July 1899, a mob of about 40 woke the Hall County sheriff keeping the jail. One claimed to be the Gilmer County sheriff wanting to use the jail for one of his prisoners. Instead, when the sheriff opened a door to the cells, the men said they wanted Smith, and they shot him dead while he was sleeping.

Tom Bryson, who had gone with Tom Bell to find Smith, was charged with his murder, but a jury acquitted him.

If the incident had any effect on Tom Bell's political plans, his capture of his father's killer made him a hero. He wasn't implicated in the jailhouse shooting of the suspect. After serving six years as Hall County clerk of court, Bell won his first run for 9th District congressman against politically popular Carter Tate in 1904. Yet he had opposition and mostly heated campaigns in every subsequent election except one.

Bell had a distinguished congressional career. He served as House whip and vice chairman of the committee on post offices and post roads. His experience as a mail carrier helped him get mail service extended to rural areas, especially the mountainous 9th District.

That was probably why people showed their gratitude in continually re-electing him. "They really appreciated that," Herbert Bell said. "Before RFD (Rural Free Delivery), people would have to go by mule or horse into town to get their mail."

Much of the Georgia marble found in buildings in the nation's capital are a result of Bell's influence in Congress. He became associated with Georgia Marble Co. and his friend Sam Tate of Pickens County after leaving office.

But leaving Congress was not of his own accord. Blue Ridge Circuit Judge John S. Wood of Canton beat him for the Democratic nomination in 1930. Under the old county unit voting system, Wood won 12 counties or 26 county units to seven counties and 18 county units for Bell.

"It broke his heart," Herbert Bell said.

When Tom Bell died in 1941, former Georgia Gov. John Slaton was among dignitaries speaking at his funeral at Gainesville's First Methodist Church. His tombstone in Alta Vista Cemetery contains a replica of his signature and the inscription, "I have done the best I could for humanity."

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesville times.com.



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