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Historically Speaking: The life of Hamilton B. "Ham" Bell

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
H.B. "Ham" Bell dedicating an airplane in the 1940s.

As a young adult he got around in a horse and buggy, but in old age he dedicated an airplane. At the beginning of his life nobody had electric power or telephones, but by the time he died there were nuclear weapons and computers.

The years from 1874 to 1947, when Hamilton B. "Ham" Bell lived in Dodge City, were a time of great advancement in technology. This span of eight decades was not only pivotal in the history of Dodge City but for humankind.

Though less well known than his counterparts, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, Bell was a lawman in his own right. He served 36 years as a peace officer in western Kansas, owned a variety of businesses in Dodge City and was instrumental in securing Fort Dodge as the Kansas Soldiers Home.

Bell was born July 31, 1853; he lost his parents before his teens and began his move westward to Kansas when he was 14 years old.

First he went to Lawrence, then on to Abilene, Ellsworth and, in July of 1872, Great Bend.

In Great Bend he hunted buffalo until he got a position as a Santa Fe Railroad agent. He worked there until he was appointed Marshal under James Gainsford.

In 1874, he arrived in Dodge City where he set up a sod livery stable, which later grew into the largest structure in Western Kansas, an 85 by 125 foot stable known far and wide as the Elephant Livery Stable.

With an elephant painted on the side, it served as a rendezvous and bedding down place for horses and mules, as well as people, throughout the region.

Shortly after he arrived in Dodge City, Bell married Josephine Dugan who died in 1900. They had a son Hamilton B. “Hammie” Bell, Jr. who passed away in 1915 after leaving Dodge City.

Bell served several terms as alderman and was county commissioner for a term. After the murder of U.S. deputy marshal Harry T. McCarty in the Long Branch Saloon on July 13, 1878, Bell took his place, a position he held for 12 years.

Bell also served three terms as sheriff; the first from 1888 to 1892, then from 1896 to 1900, and finally from 1907 to 1911. Though he never had to kill or injure anyone while enforces the law, he made more arrests than any other sheriff in the western U.S. as of 1913.

In 1878, Bell was the first to introduce the can-can to Dodge City. Though his Varieties saloon only lasted one season, the lively Parisian dance was a huge success.

In 1882, Fort Dodge closed leaving its buildings in good condition with no plans for their use. Bell spearheaded plans to convert the property into a State home for retired veterans.

With the aid of a veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic, in January 1890 the U.S. government deeded Fort Dodge to the State of Kansas for use as a Soldiers Home, which is still in use today.

Bell was the first owner of a horse-drawn hearse and ambulance service in Dodge City. In 1915, he knew the horse as a means of transportation was giving way to motorized vehicles.

As a result, he opened an automobile dealership and switched to motorized hearses and ambulances. During the smallpox outbreak of 1883 and the influenza epidemic of 1918 through 1920, he served both the living and dead.

His last business before his retirement in the 1940’s was a pet shop which he opened in 1927. People today still fondly remember Mr. Bell and his shop.

Hamilton B. Bell left Dodge City and this life on April 4, 1947 at the age of 94 years and is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery.