The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At a glance:
Born: Sept 1850 (Belfast ME)
Mary Poor Bell was Nevada’s First Lady from September 1, 1890 through January 5, 1891. Frank Bell was often referred to as Nevada’s “accidental governor” because he was neither elected as Governor or Lieutenant Governor, but became Nevada’s governor after the death of Governor Charles Stevenson.
Mary Perces Poor was born in September of 1849 (1) to James Johnson Poor and Mary Fernald Waterman Poor in Belfast, Maine where James operated a saw mill. Little is known of Mary’s early years in Belfast but appears that education was important to the family as Mary P. and her siblings Annie, Rebecca, Mary, and Clara, attended Mount Holyyoke College in Massachusetts and James W. and Franklin both attended Bowdoin College in Maine.
The Poor family (also spelled Poore) can be traced back to 1634 when the family came to America. One of the early family members was given a charter by King Charles of England for land in Massachusetts which is now the site of the city of Lawrence. Mary’s grandfather, Benjamin Poor moved to Belfast, Maine where he built several saw mills in a business area that became known as Poor’s Mills. Son James Johnson Poor (J.J.) and his brother, Benjamin V. Poor, came to California in 1854 by steamship to Panama, walked across the isthmus to take a steamship to San Francisco. J.J. prospected in California for several years and then moved to Aurora to build a quartz mill with his son, James W. Poor. Mrs. Poor joined her husband in Aurora, California with her four daughters Annie (Anna), Rebecca, Mary, Clara, and son Franklin. The Poor family had moved to Reno by 1869.
J.J. became a successful rancher and bought a tract of land west of Reno that extended from what is now the Chism Trailer Park on East Second Street to the present day Mountain View Cemetery. An area within it became a popular picnic spot and was known as “Poor’s Grove.” J.J. was elected and reelected Justice of the Peace in Reno for many years, and many referred to him as “Judge Poor.” The family attended the Congregational Church with the daughters contributing to the aid society. Evelyn Miles in her book Nevada’s Governors, states that Mary and Clara Poor were among the founders of the Congregational Church in 1871. Mary and her sisters were known for their musical talent and were active in charitable, church and civic affairs. The Reno Evening Gazette in May 31, 1887 states that Mary and Clara, as part of the Fourth of July celebration committee in 1887 “were appointed to help decorate a car of state and a floral car.” (2)
Annie and Mary were married in a double wedding ceremony on July 9, 1872 to Irving Ayres and Frank Bell respectively. Ayres and Franklin Poor owned a large cattle company that operated in California, Oregon, and Nevada. Sister Clara married C.C. Powning, editor of the Nevada State Journal and land developer. Powning Park in downtown Reno and Powning Addition, an early Reno housing development, are named after him.
Francis Jardine Bell, better known as Frank, was born January 28, 1840 in Toronto, Canada and became orphaned at the age of eight while living in Michigan. He was distant cousin of Alexander Graham Bell. In 1859 Bell supervised workers stringing telegraph lines from Carson City to Virginia City and he helped transmit the text of the Nevada Constitution to Washington, D.C. on October 26, 1864. When Frank set up a telephone line between his home at 110 N. Sierra and the home of his brother-in-law, C.C. Powning at 128 Second Street, Mary became one of the first Reno women to have home telephone service in Reno.
Frank and Mary’s two daughters, and one son; Agnes (1873-1955, Fernald (1875-1954), and Frank (1878-1879) were born in Reno. Agnes graduated from the University of Nevada and taught at Reno High School for almost forty years. She died in Carson City. Fernald sometimes called Mamie, married accountant and later San Francisco banker, John M. Gregory. She also died in Carson City. Their son, Frank Bell Gregory, later became District Judge of the First Judicial District Court of Nevada from 1953 to 1978.
Frank Bell was active in the Washoe County Republican Party in various capacities. He was serving as warden at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City when he was appointed to the State Lt. Governor’s position.
The circumstances that led him to the office of Governor, and Mary as Nevada’s First Lady was most unusual. In August of 1889, Lieutenant Governor Davis died. Samuel W. Chubbuck was then appointed Lieutenant Governor in September, but resigned November 30, 1889. That same day Governor Stevenson then appointed Warden Frank Bell as the new Lieutenant Governor. In September 1890, ailing Governor Stevenson went to San Francisco for medical treatment. He signed over temporary state governance (Disability Certificate) for Lt. Governor Bell to govern as of Sept 1, 1890. Stevenson died unexpectedly in San Francisco less than three weeks later and “Acting Governor Bell” filled in that position until January 5, 1891 when Governor Roswell Colcord was sworn into office.
As the governor’s mansion in Carson City had not yet been built and for the brief time he was in office, the governor lived in a private Carson City home. Mary never had the opportunity to be hostess of the “people’s house” as later first ladies did.
Mary Bell, considered one of the pioneers of the state and of Washoe County, died September 9, 1925 at her daughter Fernald’s home in Oakland, California after a short illness. A September 11, 1925 obituary stated that Mary “took a prominent part in the social life of Reno in the early days of Western Nevada” (3) and that she was active in the Daughters of the American Revolution. “At Frank Bell’s funeral two years later, friend, Judge Moran in his tribute to Frank, quoted Frank as saying following Mary’s funeral: “Just think of it. We had been together over fifty years, my good wife and I, and no unkind word was passed between us.” (4) The article continued on to say that Moran also stated Mary was “waiting on the other side to be by her husband’s side.” (5) Frank and Mary Bell are buried at the Masonic Cemetery located at Mountain View Cemetery in Reno, Nevada.
Researched and written by Joyce M. Cox.