About Us: What they
say about us
they say about us
That's exactly where I want it!" Jim Bell grins
as the huge granite slab is lowered into its permanent
for the company's 50th annivedrsary, the Bells received
a surprise. While going through dusty papers and pictures
in the attic, they came upon a book of monuments and
illustrations titled Beloit Marble Works, established
1896. There had been a a monument works in Beloit for
this book was found, the Bells thought 1905 was the
opening date for H. Grethen Beloit Granite Works. Grefen
had come to Beloit, via Chicago and Concordia, establishing
his business between the railroad tracks at 316 South
River, on the present site of the new Farmway Coop elevators.
That was a logical location as the marble and granite
slabs were shipped in by train.
who grew up in Beloit, went to work for H. Grethen the
summer of 1937, just after high school graduation. She
answered phone, did bookkeeping and started her sales
In March of 1938, her future husband, John D. Bell,
came to Beloit as a "finished stone cutter".
Their first date was that fall when they went out to
dinner and then joined friends to listen to the World
Series on the radio. John left for Snyder, Ok., in March
of 1939 where he did carving and lettering at a Sienna
pink granite quarry. Marcella joined him and they were
married in May of 1939. During the seven and a half
years they lived in Oklahoma, she worked in the quarry
January 1946, they returned to Beloit to open their
monument business. For three years they operated their
business at 214 N. Baldwin Street. When Mr. Grethen
died, they purchased his monument property from his
son, Lyle, and moved their business to 316 South River.
That was in 1949.
D. had grown up at Fredonia where he learned the art
of stone crafting from his father. The first three generations
of the Bell family, all stonecrafters, were located
in southeast Kansas and the great grandfather also spent
some time in the Oklahoma Territory. A picture of him
cutting the Bell family crest with a wooden mallet in
his hand hangs in the Bell Memorials office. Also pictured
are other generations of Bell crafters.
remembers her husband retelling his grandfather's tales
of placing headstones in their wagon and hauling them
to a pioneer's grave site tinder a tree. At that time
the carving and lettering was done free hand using a
mallet, chisel and hammer. More than once they took
a horse in trade for services. In those early days,
limestone and marble, which are soft stones, were used
for the headstones. The years have proven their lack
of permanency: marble can be scratched with a knife,
the stone flakes away and deteriorates with time. The
impermanence of marble can be seen in the 100-year-old
headstones in area cemeteries. The weather elements
of sun, rain, freezing and thawing and wind, have erodedthe
lettering so that many are not legible. Many are also
cracked, broken or chipped.
the advent of the air compressor in the 1920s, the pneumatic
hammer was invented, providing air power for the chisels.
This enabled the stonecutters to use granite, a harder
stone, which until that time had been used only by the
very wealthy. Jim says, "About-the only thing that
hasn't changed in the monument business is the stone.
Granite is forever. It wont deteriorate. It should be
around for a thousand years." He also noted that
it comes in a variety of colors with Bell Memorial having
35 colors available [editor's note: now more than 90!].
Granite comes from all over the world - Sweden, Denmark,
India, Africa, and the United States, particularly Missouri
there was air power, the chisels still had to be hand
held. Jim recalls a story his grandfather told. It was
Memorial Day, 1929. He was completing a monument and
decided it would look a bit better if he cleaned up
a certain letter. When the letter broke off and there
was no way to fix it he literally beat on the stone
in frustration: to hand tool another, it would take
twenty to twenty-five hours
still has some of his father's original tools - the
handle of a large chisel is worn smooth from the grip
of his father's hand. Jim notes that if he tools with
the chisel for an hour, his hand will become numb. Of
course, there are always those painful times when the
hammer misses the chisel and strikes the hand. Jim says
it seems to cause no permanent damage.
were advancements in the late 1930s. Sandblasting came
in and with it there was a product called Dunn's glue
which was boiled and poured on top of the stone. A rubber
mat was applied to the glue. That allowed the use of
a stencil knife to cut out the letters. By the mid 1940s,
the stencil was made in rubber sheets that could be
stuck on the stone. All this work was done by hand and
very time consuming.
reports the materials used in sandblasting have changed
from silicone sand, which was very dusty and a health
hazard, to a man-made aluminum oxide which is less dusty.
company has always stayed abreast of the newest developments
in its field, acquiring the newest automated equipment.
"But," says Jim, "we still have to hold
the nozzle to get more depth in the lettering. Dad taught
us how to shape flowers and leaves to give them depth.
They're not a flat carving, but are done in deep relief.
It's an area in which we're very strong. We make them
as deep as possible to give a good shadow. We want it
to last. We feel the depth gives better quality to our
anticipates using laser equipment in the future, following
in his father's footsteps as always willing to try the
latest technology. John D. purchased the first wire
saw used in Kansas in 1955. At that time, there were
150 in the world. It was a major investment which could
saw rough slabs smoother and faster than the gang saw,
cutting through granite at a speed of about 16 inches
in minute. The cuts can be made as thin as a quarter
inch. Granite slabs, seven feet by four feet, weigh
up to five tons can be handled. The wire itself doesn't
touch the granite, but the abrasive flows along the
has always work in the office and in sales. She took
Jim, a tiny tot, with her on sales calls. She
knew every cemetery in the county before he was five
years old. If she forgot something, she'd ask him. As
the children grew up, they worked in the business. In
1959, son John graduated and went to work for the family
firm and, in 1968, Jim graduated and came into the business.
During their younger years, they swept floors and with
graduation they learned to guide the polishers and were
eventually introduced to the design work. They learned
by doing as their father passed on his knowledge, with
one of the major features being deep carving of letters
and designs. Their sister Mary Heidrick also did a lot
of press cutting stencils and her husband, Ron, was
in production for a time.
Jr., was with the company until November 1990 when he
began marketing to monument dealers on a nation-wide
basis Bell's CAD Advantage, a computerized, stencil-cutting
machine. John sells, delivers and trains the buyers
in the machine's use.
1964, John, Sr., received a government contract for
producing granite markers for veterans. The first year
they produced 240 markers a month and for the following
nine years, they produced 400 a month. The wire saw
was used to cut the 2' x 1' x 4" slabs, which were
sand blasted, lettered, and sand finished. Twelve to
fifteen people were employed to produce the markers.
The granite was shipped in, 100,000 pounds at a time
in ten to twelve foot slabs. This project lasted until
1974 when the Bells voluntarily relinquished their contract.
said, "We have Veterans Administration markers
in every state but Hawaii." Located in the
facilities between the railroad tracks, the Bells kept
adding connecting buildings to house the new machinery.
By 1975, the buildings had outlived their usefulness
so John, Sr., and Marcella purchased the present building
across the street and at the north end of the block,
301 South River.
new building had been constructed in 1899 as a livery
stable. It took on new character in the 1930s when it,
too, left the horse and buggy days and became a garage
and car dealership. By 1970, it was a warehouse for
new cars. The outside of its foot thick block walls
had a sandstone finish and the brick front was painted
to match. On the inside, a complete renovation was accomplished
with the wire saw and the rigid suspension polishing
machine located in the back of the building to reduce
the noise. The polishing machine can handle a piece
of granite 13' x4'. All the interior walls were insulated
for sound. Dust control is achieved by a Reumalin Collector
which has a capacity three times the normal need.
and design cutting of the monuments is done with air
compressors which produce 300 cu. ft. of air a minute
at 100 lb pressure. This is done in the shape carving
room and two abrasive blast rooms. The shape carving
room is designed to allow the operator to work outside
the blasting area. One of the blasting machines is manually
operated to does the curved lines and special lettering.
Bell Memorials is noted for its naturally contoured
flowers on its monument, which requires hand work. The
other blasting machine is an air hydraulic operated
device that needs only a minimum amount of operator
design and drafting room is just behind the reception
area and features white walls and bright, fluorescent
lighting. The computerized stencil cutting machine is
Memorials purchased their first such computerized stencil
cutting machine in 1985 from Gerber Scientific Products,
Inc. in Connecticut, becoming the fifth monument business
in the nation to be using the enhanced equipment. The
machine has a full library of. monument designs and
new ones can be created on it. It letters and prints
on a sheet of rubber and cuts out so when the rubber
is placed on the stone the patterns can be carved. It
is fast and precise, allowing one person to do the work
the computer it is possible to personalize the markers,
making a statement of the individual's profession, hobby
or interest. Jim has said, "A monument is for the
living. It's a way for the person to be remembered."
personalization is accomplished as combines, airplanes,
sheaves of wheat, farmyards, etc are carved either in
relief style or etched into the stone. It's the family
who decides what they want to memorialize the loved
one. Jim recalls the company was able to match detail
for detail a favorite old truck for one client. Music
lovers can have notes on a staff of their favorite song.Childrens
names are listed and favorite scriptures are recorded.
personalization of the monument has led to people selecting
their own stones and having them personalized in advance
of their deaths. Jim thinks it's a good idea because
it takes the pressure off relatives and allows the purchasers
to see it. Frequently, the individuals purchase their
cemetery gravesite and have their marker set.
many years, Bell Memorials confined their services to
the retail business, marketing in the local thirty-to-forty
mile trade area. Not long after Jim and Ruth were married
in 1983, Bell Memorials expanded the business and began
wholesaling to other dealers around the state and in
Nebraska. They have now become regional. The company
offers the dealers finished, lettered markers or turn-key
services in which they also set the monuments.
Ruth joined the firm in 1990, after Josh was in school.
To make them a full service company, Bell Memorials
also restores and resets monuments. The Bells have never
been known to idle away time. In the monument business
there are cycles of activity, with Memorial Day being
the major dead line. In the periods of slower activity,
their entrepreneurism has created new businesses for
them. Using the computerized stencil cutting machine,
they have developed Bell Signs, a division of Bell Memorials.
Their variety of signs include: vehicle graphics, window
signs, sandblasted signs, graphic and logo design and
To compliment this area as being the Land of the Post
Rock, the Bell's also do post rock yard markers, sandblasting
family, or business names onto them.
Going from one extreme to another, from solid to fragile,
the Bell's sand blasted Victorian glass is another demonstration
of their expertise. To learn the skills old craftsmen
used in making etched glass, the Bells had old instructions
written in German translated and have adapted the hand-made
art into modem technology. The items they create provide
unique gifts, customized to the occasion such as weddings,
anniversaries, pictures of windmills, farmsteads, animals,
Bells have also played a significant role in the Save
the Depot fund raising project. For it, they have created
thirty-eight transom windows which were sold to members
community. Each of the windows has an etched train engine.
To be able to reproduce the authentic engines, the Bells
found another old book which had almost camera-ready
detailed pictures of a large variety of locomotives.
Those designs were put into the computer for the Depot
illustrate the Bells' belief in being on the "cutting
purchased a site on the Internet, which is going on-line
in this area. The site displays in color their picture-framed
etched glass pieces and provides the necessary ordering
the Internet! The Bells will serve you well.