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Harmon’s Histories: H.O. Bell’s flying, and driving, machines

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

Last week, we told the story of 32-year-old Urban Diteman Jr., who disappeared on a 1929 attempted transatlantic crossing. He’d been taught to fly a few years earlier in Missoula by legendary aviator Bob Johnson.

Johnson got his flight training from Nicholas Bernard “Nick” Mamer, who’d been a military pilot in the first world war, as well as a commercial pilot and stunt flier. Mamer spent time in Missoula as part of the first experiments using aircraft to patrol for forest fires in the mid-1920s.

NickMamer at FeltsField1928. (Courtesy Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture)

In the fall of 1929, shortly after Diteman’s ill-fated flight, Johnson and Mamer helped a Missoula car dealer put on one of the biggest celebrations the Garden City had ever seen.

What brought them all together?

That story began on an Ohio farm, decades earlier.

Harry Oscar Bell was 12 years old, just starting the sixth grade, when his dad died. His mom sent him to Indiana to stay with an uncle.

There, Bell fell in love with automobiles. His uncle had a “Milwaukee Steamer.” Harry was fascinated. He learned to tear apart engines and put them back together from auto mechanics like Carl Fisher (who later founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

By the early 1900s, he had established himself as a race car driver and had opened a car dealership in Spokane, Wash.

In 1915, he and his wife moved to Missoula and, with borrowed money, purchased a local Ford dealership. Over the next decade and a half, H. O. Bell grew the business from three employees (including himself) to 36 workers, requiring a move to a much larger space.

H.O. Bell

Harry’s fascination with cars was matched only by his enthusiasm for aviation. He got to know Bob Johnson and by 1927 was elected president of the local chapter of the National Aeronautic Association.

That combination – cars and aviation – led to the plans for the 1929 grand opening of the new H. O. Bell Ford dealership.

Bell and Johnson arranged for Nick Mamer, Johnson’s mentor, to headline the Missoula event. Mamer was now famous, having just set a record for the number of non-stop miles flown (7,200) in a daring flight requiring dangerous night-time, in-air refueling.

Mamer agreed to shuttle Ford execs to Missoula for Bell’s grand opening, as well as spend three days giving locals rides in his Ford tri-motor monoplane, “West Wind.”

Weather was a bit of a problem. Storm clouds prevented Mamer from flying his guests over Glacier Park, but he was able to make it as far north as Flathead Lake and “the spectacular Chinese Wall” in what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

A Missoulian reporter described one of the flights this way: “Swoop, bumpitty bong, the plane pushed itself through gigantic eddies among the cliffs and slopes, over regions of unutterable loneliness.”

Back on the ground, an estimated 15,000 people (as many as 40 percent of them out-of-towners) crowded the intersection of South Higgins Avenue and Fourth Street, the site of the new dealership. The employees could hardly keep up, giving tours and feeding the steady stream of visitors.

The Daily Missoulian reported, “The Bell organization … dispensed thousands of hamburger sandwiches and innumerable cups of coffee to the visitors. Something like 800 pounds of hamburger, 40 pounds of coffee and 100 cases of near-beer disappeared during the day and evening.

“Supplies were depleted frequently and during the evening hours almost every source of supply of food-stuffs in the city was called on, with bakeries doing special orders toward the end of the evening.”

Given the stock market crash and economic worries, Ford execs had a major announcement at the event, described as “transcending even the … new plant and … the flights of Lieutenant Mamer.”

Company officials revealed there would be price reductions on all Ford cars and trucks – cuts, ranging from $15 to $200. One could now have a “roadster” for $435, or a “standard coupe” for $500.

An exhausted Harry Bell finally closed the doors on the celebration at midnight.

From the day he arrived in Missoula to those promotional Nick Mamer flights of 1929 to his death in 1971, H. O. Bell put his stamp on aviation.

Bell promoted regional air-mail service for Missoula. He pushed for acquisition of 80 acres next to present-day Sentinel High School for what became Hale Field, the town’s first real airport. He served on the local board of the National Aeronautic Association for more than 30 years and helped establish the newer airport we know today, west of town.

On Memorial Day 1968, Bob Johnson and Harry Bell were honored in a ceremony officially renaming the Missoula County Airport, Johnson-Bell Field.