Belle M. Burchill, teacher, reformer, suffragist, postmaster, real estate and oil developer, was born in Watertown, Jefferson County, New York, on August 3, 1847. She was the daughter of Augustus Murray (1794–1854) and Maria (Phelps) Murray (1810–1880). Burchill moved with her family to Deerfield, New York, by 1860. In the mid-1860s she moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where she taught school for seven years. She married George S. Burchill (1840-1895) on April 8, 1874, in Bloomington, Illinois. Immediately afterwards, the Burchills traveled by stagecoach to Fort Worth, Texas, and arrived the same year. Burchill gave birth to three children—Clara, Edna, and Carl, and adopted one child, Lillie B. Of the three Burchill siblings, Edna was the only surviving child; Clara and Carl died in infancy.
Upon arrival in Fort Worth, Burchill, a school teacher since the age of fifteen, founded a private school by 1875 for privileged white students. In 1876 the school was sold to the city and became the first free public school in Fort Worth. At the urging of Burchill, the public school student body comprised students who had previously attended private schools. Burchill’s school and various other schools in the area were eventually brought together as the Fort Worth Independent School District. She held the post of principal and teacher at the school until her appointment as Fort Worth’s second female postmaster in 1881.
Burchill’s first term as postmaster (she refused the title “postmistress”) began on May 25, 1881, following her appointment by President James A. Garfield, Republican from Ohio. The appointment ended on October 18, 1885, after she was relieved of her duties by the incoming president, Grover Cleveland, Democrat from New York. Upon the election of President Benjamin Harrison, Republican from Indiana, in 1888, Burchill was reappointed as postmaster and served from July 18, 1889, until February 7, 1894. She was again relieved of her duties upon the return of Grover Cleveland as president of the United States.
Burchill had three major accomplishments during her years as postmaster. Her first accomplishment entailed relocating the post office which had been housed in a building between two busy saloons in the “Hell’s Half Acre” section (often referred to as “The Acre”) of Fort Worth. The original location was considered a dangerous and raucous place for upstanding women. The new site on Main Street between Third and Fourth streets was considered safer and was nearer the center of the town. Her second major accomplishment involved the initiation of free home delivery of the mail in 1884. Prior to this, mail recipients were required to obtain their letters and parcels directly from the post office. During her second term in office, she again moved the post office from Main Street to the Board of Trade building located at Seventh and Houston streets. Burchill also lobbied for funding for a new and bigger post office building. The building was approved but did not begin until Burchill’s replacement, Ida L. Turner, took office. Burchill’s third major accomplishment as postmaster resulted in the hiring of the first African American mail carriers.
A dedicated Republican, Burchill came under frequent attack from the political opposition. According to the March 27, 1883, edition of the Fort Worth Daily Democrat, Burchill was arrested for improperly “retaining mail, and other ways violating the rules of the department” after an opened piece of mail addressed to another person but returned to sender was found in her desk at the post office. An official inquiry was made. Burchill denied the accusation and pled “not guilty.” As reported in the Daily Democrat on March 31, 1883, she was “honorably acquitted” and received “thunders of applause by the spectators” for a matter that “appeared like a put-up job.”
Burchill was also instrumental in the creation and supervision of an orphan’s home in 1887. Originally created for the local “bootblacks”—homeless boys from the North— the boys home was quickly expanded and renamed the Benevolent Home of Fort Worth. The Benevolent Home operated under the auspices of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) which appointed Burchill and her friend, Delia Krum Collins, as superintendent and secretary, respectively. The Benevolent Home later became the Tarrant County Orphans Home and eventually accepted both boys and girls in need of assistance. It operated in one form or another until 1976. Burchill retired from the Benevolent Home in 1899.
An active member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Texas Equal Rights Association (TERA), Burchill was a supporter of abstinence from alcoholic beverages and a supporter of woman suffrage. During the 1894 TERA executive committee meeting in which Mrs. Rebecca Henry Hayes, president of TERA, was voted removed from office and Mrs. Elizabeth A. Fry installed as her replacement, Burchill disagreed with Hayes’s position of declining a Texas visit by Susan B. Anthony and was among two executive committee members absent but represented by proxy. Burchill later attended the 1895 convention at the Texas State Fair. In 1896, the last year of activity for TERA, Burchill was installed as vice-president. After the demise of TERA, Burchill’s equal rights/suffragist activities faded with TERA. Her connection to WCTU continued as evidenced by her association with the Benevolent Home until her retirement from the home. At that point Burchill’s active political reform efforts appear to cease. Her love for her “boys,” however, never faded.
In 1909 Burchill and her daughter, Edna, became business partners and purchased a tract of land southeast of Fort Worth between the Orphan’s Home and Polytechnic Heights. The property was developed into a residential housing subdivision called the Burch-Hill Addition. Lots sold for $200 to $250 each, and a variety of financing options were offered. The homes were predominantly ranch-style single-story houses. In addition to her real estate venture, Burchill also sold mineral rights leases for oil speculation.
Belle M. Burchill died at her home on April 23, 1937, after succumbing to a lingering illness. Well-respected and admired, Burchill’s pallbearers were Judge Irby Dunklin, William Bryce, Carroll S. Moore, Charles Fain, Leon Gross, and C. W. Connery. Honorary pallbearers included the only three surviving original mail carriers hired by Burchill—Zeb Wallace, J. E. Pulliam and S. B. Mims. Other honorary pallbearers also included Eddie Francisco, Frank Rawlings, Douglas McDavid, and Jimmy Buster Brown—once bootblack and orphan boys to whom Burchill had once provided food, shelter, and an education. Burchill was buried in the family plot in Oakwood Cemetery in Fort Worth. Fort Worth Press Woman’s Department editor Edith Alderman Guedry eulogized Burchill as a woman who “never failed to attract attention.” Burchill was known to maintain her “Victorian dignity” and was frequently seen wearing a bonnet and black gloves from the “old era.” Guedry considered Burchill “a link between early Fort Worth and modern Fort Worth" which certainly described Belle M. Burchill.