Nell Donnelly Reed: Kansas City dress manufacturer and entrepreneur

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Ellen “Nell” Donnelly Reed was a dress manufacturer and entrepreneur in Kansas City.

She was born Ellen Quinlan on March 6, 1889 in Parsons, Kansas. Nell learned to sew at an early age.

After she graduated high school, Nell moved to Kansas City and married Paul Donnelly. She continued to pursue her education. In 1909 Nell graduated from Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri and returned to Kansas City.

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In 1916, Nell wasn’t happy with how dresses looked so she started making her own. Other women noticed her style, and she began to sell her dresses in Kansas City.

In 1919, Nell established the Donnelly Garment Company. By 1931, the company employed more than 1,000 workers and had sales of $3.5 million.

Nell’s financial success also made her a target. On Dec. 16, 1931, Nell and her chauffeur were kidnapped and helped for ransom. A family friend and former U.S. Senator, James A. Reed, took charge of searching for her. According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Reed allegedly asked Johnny Lazia, a Kansas City organized crime figure, to help find Nell. Thanks to Reed, Lazia, and the Kansas City police, Nell and her chauffeur were released after being held for 36 hours. No ransom was paid, and the kidnappers were caught, tried and convicted.

Nell later divorced Paul Donnelly and married Reed. 

By 1953, the Donnelly Garment Company was the largest dress manufacturer in the world.

In 1956 Nell sold her interest in the company, and it was renamed Nelly Don, Inc. Under new ownership, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1978.

Nell was active in the KC community. She donated 731 acres of land to the Missouri Department of Conservation in memory of her late husband, Reed. Anyone can visit the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area in Jackson County.

Nell died on September 8, 1991 at 102 years old.

Photos and information courtesy The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City

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