The Bell Ranch originated with two Spanish land grants to Don Pablo Montoya in 1824. Lying along LaCinta Creek near the Canadian River, the historic Bell Ranch is bordered by present day Conchas Lake in San Miguel County, New Mexico about 30 miles (97 km) from Tucumcari. The land originally totaled 719,000 acres (2,910 km²) of rolling grasslands bordered by red rimrocked canyons and flat-topped mountains called mesas. This included the bell-shaped mountain for which the ranch was named that inspired the distinctive bell brand first registered in San Miguel County in 1875 by then-owner Wilson Waddingham. The brand has been in continuous use on the ranch since that time.
Spanish rule would be followed by the Mexicans and then to be taken in by the United States. Upon acquisition of New Mexico Territory, the U.S. Cavalry established a temporary post at the Bell Ranch Headquarters for a time, using a part of the manager's house as a "map room" and post office while surveying the surrounding area. Charles Goodnight of the Goodnight Cattle trail utilized one of the prominent mesas of the ranch, Gavilan, to navigate on the way to Colorado with his cattle herds.
Later, Albert K. Mitchell, a man of significant distinction was to serve as manager. His long list of accomplishments included President of the American Hereford Cattle Breeders Association, an elected member of the New Mexico State House of Representatives, President of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and a founder of the American Quarter Horse Association. Mitchell, understandably busy with all these responsibilities, utilized a small plane to commute to all his activities. He had built a hangar & runway at the Bell which stands today. He certainly was one of the first to use airplane flight to commute for agricultural pursuits.
In 1947, the ranch went through a significant re-division with the Bell Ranch headquarters, the name, and brand being retained with approximately 130,000 acres (526 km²) near the center of the Montoya grant and five other portions sectioned off. This was purchased by Harriet Keeney of Connecticut and her family. Ranch historians have said that before the '47 re-organization, the Bell Ranch was the largest single ranch in New Mexico and at one time was "the oldest deeded ranch built in a single operation in the entire Southwest."
In 1970 ownership of the largest single chunk -- so large it has its own Zip Code, 88441 -- was acquired by William N. Lane II of Chicago, chairman and CEO of publicly traded General Binding Corp., a maker of office supplies and equipment. Further purchases of the original grant land have fleshed out the holding to its present size. Lane himself died in a 1978 car accident on the ranch. The ranch is now owned by a trust for Bill Lane's five children. A non-family member manages the ranch, although one son, Jeff, raised his family on the Bell until August 15, 2007, when he was killed in the crash of the plane that he was piloting on the ranch.
The Bell Ranch stands at of the original of a century and a half ago. The white faced red Hereford cattle of Ellis' tenure are gone. The present day herds feature of a cross consisting of the original Hereford, Red Angus, Gelbvieh, Brahman to create the "Red Bell" herd.
In 1975, a film called Cowboy Heaven was filmed by David Ellis about the true western cowboy featuring the ranch and the then current cowboys of the Bell. The American Quarter Horse Journal has published well illustrated articles about the ranch on several occasions as had the Western Horseman magazine.
George Ellis wrote about his experiences in the book, The Bell Ranch As I Knew It, covering the Bell operations during his tenure. The book itself won the '74 Wrangler Award for Best Western Book of the Year from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. He wrote "The Bell is a good ranch - one of the best in the Southwest. Cattle people and college people from all over the world came to visit there." He lists countries represented by these frequent visitors from an impressive five continents. He concludes "The demands and privileges of the Bell touched all our lives - and left them richer."
In addition to the works by Culley and Ellis already mentioned, Martha Downer Ellis, wife of Manager George Ellis, found subject for her historical inquiries and poems in her published books:
On The Ranch
Caught in a dream are we who live here -
Bound by a magic that no man knows.
All the bitter winds of winter,
All the burning winds of June,
Lie clean forgot
When we ride forth on a fair and sunny day.