Pittsburg Biographies
Updated: April 17, 2008  


William Wils "W. W. " Bell
1864 - 1953

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William Wils Bell or W. W. as he was called, was born in August of 1864 in Illinois. He married about 1887 Sarah Barbara Lawler, daughter of William and Amanda Lawler. She was born July 1868 in Vermilion Co., Illinois and came to Pittsburg with her parents sometime around 1880. Not long after their marriage, the couple went to Eureka Springs, Carroll Co., Arkansas where their first child, William Rex Bell was born in1888. In the spring of 1889, W. W. Bell and his family moved to Pittsburg where he went into business with a brother, opening a paint and wallpaper business at 116 E. Fourth called W. W. Bell & Bro’s. In 1901 he leased some land just south of the Hull & Dillon Packing Plant on West Fourth where there had been an old half-mile horse racing track. It was pretty run down and hadn’t been used for a few years when he leased it. He built a platform on wheels with a roof and would pull this in front of the grandstand for performances on the days that there weren’t horse racing. He called his amusement area Forest Park. He continually enhanced the park adding benches, concessions, a small zoo and would bring top-notch entertainment to perform. Also about this time, he became manager of the Opera House on the corner of Fourth and Broadway, now called the National Bank Building. He retained this position until 1903 when he decided that Pittsburg needed a much larger show place and with a group of investors organized the Pittsburg Amusement Company which commenced with the construction of the La Belle Theatre on the northeast corner of Fourth and Locust. He also closed Forest Park and dismantled the buildings using some of the timbers in the building of the La Belle. The new 3-story theatre building opened on May 9, 1904 and had a 34’ by 63’ stage and a seating capacity of 1600. In 1907, Bell sold his interest in the theatre and opened the Airdome Theatre on the corner of northwest corner of Ninth and Broadway. It was one of the first open-air theatres in the mid-west and only was open for a few seasons, closing in about 1912. It was around this time that talking movies were becoming popular and attendance at stage theatres began to decline, so Bell sold all his theatre operations and began selling outdoor advertising. He was elected Pittsburg Mayor in 1917 but didn’t serve his full term, resigning in 1918 to move to Chicago with his business concerns. He then moved to Terre Haute, Vigo Co., Indiana in about 1923 where he remained until his death May 15, 1953 from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried in the Abbey in Mount Olive Cemetery in Pittsburg, KS where his wife joined him in 1957. W. W. and Amanda (Lawler) Bell had two children: William Rex and Daphine.


“W. W. Bell, Former Mayor, Dead at 89; Succumbs at Terre Haute Where He Had Lived for Many Years. Death Friday Follows Cerebral Hemorrhage Suffered Wednesday; Funeral to be in Pittsburg Monday,” Pittsburg Headlight; Sat. May 16, 1953 “W. W. bell, former mayor of Pittsburg and a colorful figure in the theatre business here about the turn of the century and for several years following, died yesterday morning [May 15, 1953] at his home in Terre Haute, Ind., where he had lived more than 30 years. Mr. Bell was 89 years of age. Stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after 1 o'clock Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Bell’s condition worsened, resulting in death about 11:30 o’clock yesterday morning. A daughter, Mrs. Floyd Baxter of Pittsburg, was in Terre Haute, being called there when her father was stricken.
To Return Body.
The body is being returned to Pittsburg and will arrive here about noon Sunday. Funeral Services have been planned for 3 o'clock Monday afternoon at the Smith chapel. Burial will be in Mt Olive Cemetery. Mrs. William R. Hamilton of Weir will read the service. Mrs. Lavon Graham Holden will sing accompanied by Mrs. S. E. Cayton. In addition to Mrs. Baxter, Mr. Bell is survived by the widow, Mrs. Barbara Lawler Bell and a son, W. Rex Bell of Terre Haute. During later years of his life, Mr. Bell had followed his original plan, that of painting. He presented one of his paintings to the Pittsburg Public Library and another to the Pittsburg Elks lodge, of which he was a charter member. Painting Indian scenes, he had gained considerable recognition in recent years. Originally, friends here recalled he had wanted to be an artist, but his hopes were interrupted by his success in the entertainment business.
Started Airdome.
It was Mr. Bell who is credited with starting a novelty in the entertainment business, that of an airdome or outdoor theater. When Mr. Bell moved to Pittsburg in the spring of 1889, he had recalled on one of his periodic visits here, there was a half-mile horse racing track that had just been built in what was called Forest Park, located on West Fourth, almost due south from the Hull & Dillon Packing Company plant. It was a little dilapidated within a comparatively short time and used little. Mr. Bell obtained on a lease on the property and made repairs. He built a platform on wheels and with a roof. This was pulled in front of the grandstand where members of a stock company performed. On days there were horse races, the mobile stage was shunted aside.
Opera House Manager.
Mr. Bell at one time was manager of the city's opera house occupying a site where the National Bank building stands today. One of the finer earlier day theatres in Pittsburg was the La Belle theatre erected at Fourth and Locust. it was a 3-story structure with a seating capacity of 1,500. The building was built in 1904 by a corporation which Mr. Bell headed. The theatre was too elaborate for Pittsburg of that day and was not successful. He built an uptown open air theatre at Ninth and Broadway about 1907. It was with this opening that Mr. Bell coined the word "airdome," a term that was to later become common. After selling his theatres, Mr. Bell was engaged in theatre advertising. He served Pittsburg as mayor in 1917 and 1918, but resigned his post because his business took him to Chicago. After a few years he went to Terre Haute, where he had been since that time. Despite the many years of residence in Indiana, Mr. Bell continued his interest Pittsburg and Pittsburgers, keeping the association alive through frequent visits with his daughter here. He made a trip here in May of 1951 particularly to be in Pittsburg for the city's diamond jubilee. He was here again last summer.''

“W. W. Bell Funeral Today. Services for Former Mayor With Burial at Mt. Olive,” Pittsburg Headlight, Mon., May 18, 1953" Funeral services for W. W. Bell, former mayor of Pittsburg and theatre business man who died Friday in Terre Haute, Ind., were held this afternoon at the Smith chapel. Mrs. William R. Hamilton of Weir officiated at the rites. Mrs. Lavon Graham Holden sang accompanied by Mrs. S. E. Cayton. Interment was in Mt. Olive cemetery. Serving as active pallbearers were three members of the fire department and three members of the police force. They included William Scott, George McClaskey and Paul Ahrens, of the fire department and Earl Kennett, Wallace McDaniel and Joe Farley of the police force. Acting as honorary pallbearers were 'Tom McNally, Clint Rankin, Bill Messinger, Jack Lindberg, Frank Clayton, Gus Tessmer, Berl Meade, Billy McCormick, Sam Holden, Jack Nesch, F. W. Brinkeroff, J. N. Patmor, T. F. Cole, Bert Maxwell, Tom Howe and Antone Melette.

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Children of W. W. Bell & Sarah Barbara Lawler :
1.William Rex born March 23, 1888 in Eureka Springs, Carroll Co., AR and died in 1960 in Terre Haute, Vigo Co., IN. He married first in about 1907 in Pittsburg, KS, Maria (last name unknown). They had one daughter Mary, born in 1908. His wife died sometime between 1910 and 1911 as they are listed in the 1910 Federal Census living with his parents. Mary is listed in the 1920 Federal Census in Chicago living with her grandparents W. W. & Barbara Bell. According to W. Rex Bell’s WWI registration papers in 1917 his first wife had died and his daughter was not living with him. W. Rex remarried in 1911 another Maria who was born May 3, 1905 in St. Joseph, MO. They had two children: W. Rex Bell Jr. born Sept 25, 1926 and Matihilda B. born Dec 13, 1928, both in Terre Haute, IN. W. Rex Bell is buried in the Abbey in Mount Olive Cemetery in Pittsburg, KS.
2. Daphine was born in March 1890 in Pittsburg, Kansas and died in Sept 1975 in Shawnee Mission, Johnson Co., KS. She married Floyd Baxter. Daphine is buried in the Abbey in Mount Olive Cemetery in Pittsburg, KS.

        Bell Family Web Cards & Personal Data Sheets  

Forest Park
Operated by W. W. Bell from 1901-1903
southwest area of Fourth and the Bypass
- photo about 1901

La Belle Theatre
Built and managed by W. W. Bell from 1904 -about 1907
northeast corner of Fourth and Locust