William Wils Bell was born in August of 1864 in Illinois to William N. and Elizabeth N. (Arnold) Bell. The family moved to Denton Co., Texas when William was about 16 where his father bought a farm. He married Sarah Barbara Lawler on 30 June 1887 in Carroll Co., Arkansas. She was the daughter of William and Amanda Elizabeth (Hall) Lawler and was born in July 1868 in Vermilion Co., Illinois. While couple was living in Carroll Co., Arkansas, their first child, William Rex Bell was born on 23 May 1888. Later that year, W. W. Bell and his family moved to Pittsburg where he went into the painting business with his brother, Charles. W. W. Bell & Bro. was located at 116 E. Fourth and also sold wallpaper and other household interior design items. His father, who had owned his own painting business in Ft. Worth, Texas, joined the enterprise a couple of years later after moving to Pittsburg from Girard where had lived since 1888.

In 1901 W. W. Bell 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 ran down and hadn’t been used for several years when he leased it. He cleanded up and upgraded the track and built a platform on wheels with a roof that he would pull in front of the grandstand for performances on the days that there weren’t horse racing. He called his amusement area Forest Park. Over the next few years he added other enhancments to the park; adding benches, concessions, a small zoo and top-notch entertainment to perform on the stage. Also about this time, he became manager of Rhodes 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. They immediately commenced with the construction of the La Belle Theatre which was located on the northeast corner of Fourth and Locust. It was at this time he closed Forest Park and dismantled the buildings, using some of the timbers in the La Belle.

The new 3-story theatre building opened on May 9, 1904 with 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 but only was open for a few seasons, closing in about 1912. In 1894, Bell was one of the original founders of the Theatrical Manager's Association which started in Kansas City, later moving to New York. 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 where he was the executive secretary for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, of which he helped organize. In 1926 he moved to Terre Haute, Vigo Co., Indiana where he and his son Rex founded the Three B Company an outdoor advertising and wholesale supply business. William retired in the late 1940's and pursued his passion of painting. His expertise was western landscapes and his paintings were displayed in galleries across the country. He presented one of his painting to the Pittsburg Public Library. W. W. Bell died on 15 May 1953 from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 88 at his home in Terre Haute. His remains were brought back to Pittsburg and buried in the Abbey in Mount Olive Cemetery. His wife Barbara died in 1957 and along with his son and daughter are also buried in the Abbey in Mount Olive Cemetery. W. W. and Sarah Barbara (Lawler) Bell had two children: William Rex (1888 - 1960) and Daphine (1890 - 1975) who married Floyd Baxter in Pittsburg.

Obituaries

W. W. Bell Funeral Today. Services for Former Mayor With Burial at Mt. Olive. W. W. Bell Funeral Today. Services for Former Mayor With Burial at Mt. Olive,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. - Pittsburg Headlight, Mon., May 18, 1953"

Wils W. Bell, 88, Prominent T. H. Citizen Dies. Wils W. Bell, 88 years old, died at 11:10 o’clock Friday morning at his residence, 1 Jackson boulevard. Prior to his retirement three years ago he had served as vice president and treasurer of the Three-B Company and of the Poster Parts Company, both of this city. He was a member of the Christian Science Church, a past president of the Terre Haute Rotary Club and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and Terre Haute Lodge 86, B. P. O. Elks. Born in southern Illinois, he later moved to Texas and in 1888 was elected mayor of Pittsburg, Kan., where he spent several years. He had been a resident of Terre Haute since 1926. Following his retirement he devoted most of his time to his hobby of painting. He has had paintings displayed in more than 26 are galleries located in various parts of the country. He and Mrs. Bell observed their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary in June of last year. Surviving are the wide, Barbara; a son, Rex; a daughter, Mrs. Daphne Baxter, Pittsburg, Kan.; two sisters, Mrs. Mathilda Hudson, Houston, Tex., and Mrs. J. Haines, Minneapolis; four grandchildren, including Rex Bell, Jr., of this city, and eight great-grandchildren. The body was taken to the Gillis Memory Chapel were friends may call from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. The body will be taken to the Smith Mortuary at Pittsburg, Kan., for final services and burial there. - The Terre Haute Tribune. Terre Haute, Indiana, 15 May 1953, pg1.

Funeral Service of W. N. Bell. The funeral service of W. N. Bell took place Monday afternoon at 2 o’clock at the United Presbyterian church in this city. The church was crowded with friends of the deceased who gathered to pay the last sad rites to their esteemed friend. The sermon was preached by Rev. J. H. Gibson, after which the procession proceeded to the Mt. Olive cemetery, where the remains were laid in their last resting place. W. N. Bell was born in Manard county, Ill, Oct. 7, 1839. He was a son of Rev. D. R. Bell, a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. At 10 years of age he professed religion and joined the church, and was a devoted member and worker ever afterward. At the age of 19 he married and lived on a farm in Illinois until 1877, when he moved to Ft. Worth, Texas, where he engages in the painting business. In 1885 he moved to Eureka Springs, Ark., on account of ill health, and three years later he moved to Girard where he resided one year and moved to this city, where he died. He leaves a wife and four children. - The Pittsburg Daily Headlight, Pittsburg, Kansas, 22 Dec 1891, Tues, pg4.

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Related Images

         

W. W. Bell & Bro.
Advertisement
3
Pittsburg Daily Headlight
22 April 1891

William Wils Bell5
about 1937
William Wils Bell2
1964 - 1953
The Abbey, Mt. Olive Cemetery
Pittsburg, Kansas

Barbara Bell2
1868 - 1957
The Abbey, Mt. Olive Cemetery
Pittsburg, Kansas

W. Rex Bell2
1888 - 1960
The Abbey, Mt. Olive Cemetery
Pittsburg, Kansas

 
 
     
         
Daphne (Bell) Baxter2
1890 - 1975
The Abbey, Mt. Olive Cemetery
Pittsburg, Kansas
William N. Bell2
1839 - 1891
wife Elizabeth N. (Arnold) Bell

1840 - 1904
Mt. Olive Cemetery
Pittsburg, Kansas
     

 

Sources

The Billboard. "Final Curtain." May 30, 1953. 54. Web
McNally, Edward T. 1876-1976. 1976. 124. Print.
1Ancestry.com. Web
2FindaGrave.com.Web
3Newspapers.com.Web
4Webmaster Personal Collection
5
Indiana State Historical Society Collection. Martin's Photo Shop. 1937. Web

 

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