While road crews are hard at work making repairs to our city streets, and it seems every which way you turn is another detour- I’m finding lots of new alternate routes to get around the construction in our city. Between the
trains, detours, and traffic, the Terre Haute commute lately seems almost impossible. Getting to-and-fro can certainly be frustrating and at times, leaves me thinking ‘this would be so much faster if I were on horseback.’
But as we see in the artwork of William Mils Bell; obstacles in transportation have been with us long before safety cones. True to his Realist style Bell viewed scenes of everyday life and painted what he saw.
This week’s Historical Treasure is an oil painting of a paddle wheel boat barge carrying an antique car across the Wabash River. The painting was inspired by a 1931 Halftone print titled, An Old-Fashioned Ferry Plies The Wabash Near St. Francisville. With so many rivers and watersheds surrounding the Wabash Valley, ferries often took the place of a bridge to carry vehicles to the other side. While the paddle-wheel powered the vessel over the crossing, a large chain extending across the water kept it from being swept downstream.
The painter, W. Mils Bell was not a native Hoosier. In fact, he spent some time in several different states. Born in Illinois, he grew up in Texas, later married and settled down in Pittsburg Kansas. There, he threw himself into a lifelong passion for theatre and entertainment. He managed a few theaters and an opera house before committing to his design and production of the Airdome- one of the Midwest’s first open air stage-theaters.
The Airdome saw great seasonal success, but with the introduction of motion pictures; especially those with sound, the demand for stage performance declined.
Nevertheless, Bell had investment and a developed connection with his Pittsburg home. He even served as their elected mayor for a short time before eventually moving to Terre Haute.
After his political work and an exhaustive career in the theatre business, he was finally able to retire in the late 1940’s and focus wholly on creating art.
William Mils Bell lived in his Terre Haute home until he passed away at the age of 88. He is buried alongside his family at Mount Olive Cemetery in Pittsburg.
The William Mils Bell painting, is on display in the History Center's Special Exhibit Gallery through October as part of the Vigo Inspired Arts & Artists Exhibit.