LIMA — William Lockard Russell had made a very favorable impression on Lima since his arrival in 1902. In November 1918, as talk of the 1919 mayoral race began, The Lima News opined that Lima “would be a fortunate city if the people forced William L. Russell to become its mayor.”
That didn’t happen, though holding public office was seemingly one of the few things Russell, a stanch Republican, didn’t accomplish in his life. He had searched for gold in the Klondike, installed phone lines in South America, survived an avalanche and yellow fever. Dubbed “Lima’s Oil King” by the newspapers, he headed oil companies, banks and manufacturing companies. He built theaters and business blocks. He gave generously to support America’s effort in World War I and then, as the war was winding down and the deadly Spanish flu cranking up, he paid for visiting nurses to minister to the sick.
On May 1, 1923, a day after he died after becoming ill during a business trip to Chicago, the News wrote: “His life history reading like a chapter from a tale of romance, of conquest and adventure, W.L. Russell has left the stage of activity in this life at the age of 63.”
Russell arrived on the stage of life at Zanesville on Aug. 10, 1859, 17 days before Edwin Drake struck oil at Titusville, Pennsylvania. William Rusler’s 1921 history of Allen County claimed Russell’s father, A.H. Russell was “a pioneer oil operator” in the Pennsylvania fields. After attending school in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, Russell worked with his father in the western Pennsylvania oil fields. His brother, Charles, who would later partner with Russell in oil ventures, worked nearby developing explosives used in the industry.
In 1884, Russell married Ella Diesterwig, the daughter of a German immigrant boot and shoe dealer, at the home of her parents in LaSalle, Illinois. “Mr. and Mrs. Russell have gone to their new home in Minnesota where C.E. and W.L. Russell are engaged in the oil business,” the Ottawa (Illinois) Free Trader wrote on Sept. 13, 1884. The couple had two sons, Charles D. Russell and William Henry Russell, before the marriage ended sometime before 1900.
In the early 1890s, Russell, always attuned to opportunity, headed south to Venezuela “and while there secured from President (Joaquin) Crespo concessions for the construction of a long-distance telephone service,” according to Rusler’s county history. “After securing the concession he had much to do in an executive way with the construction of 1,500 miles of trunk line through the Andes Mountains.” While there, Rusler noted, Russell fell ill with yellow fever “and was cured by treatment of his own while 20 of his employees died of the disease.”
When gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon and Alaska in 1896, Russell went north and “made more than an ordinary success,” Rusler wrote. “He was there 18 months and narrowly escaped being caught in a great snow slide in which 86 men and three women lost their lives. He assisted in taking out the bodies of six of the unfortunates.”
In November 1901, the 42-year-old Russell married 18-year-old Beatrice Pansy King, the daughter of a Steubenville riverboat captain. The new couple soon put down roots in Lima, then a center of U.S. oil production.
“One of the most important sales of residence property that has been made in Lima recently was that which was consummated yesterday, when W.L. Russell bought from J.R. Hughes his handsome property on West Market Street,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported on Feb. 11, 1902. The sale price was $15,000. Arriving with the Russells at their new home at 649 W. Market St. were Beatrice’s parents and Olive King, their only other child, who later married Dr. Olen Chenoweth.
A little more than a week after making news in the real estate market, Lima’s newest resident made a splash in the oil fields. “The consolidated Oil Company which has W.L. Russell at its head, is puncturing the lease on the M.L. Boyer farm west of Elida, 13 strings of tools now being at work. Six of the wells will be completed at the same time and will be held for a simultaneous shot, it being the purpose of the company to get a photograph of the results to be used for advertising purposes,” the Times-Democrat wrote Feb. 19, 1902.
In the early 20th century, Russell seemingly had a finger in every aspect of the oil business. “During the past 30 or 40 years,” Rusler wrote in 1921, “William L. Russell has been an investor or otherwise actively interested in practically all the oil fields of the United States, primarily those of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia and still has large interests in Texas and Oklahoma.”
Russell also was actively interested in local real estate and often was linked to Lima development projects, some real and some merely rumored. A March 26, 1903, story in the Times-Democrat claiming Russell “will build a six story flat on his lot on West Market Street near Pierce” turned out to be untrue as did a March 26, 1918, story that Russell planned a 12-story skyscraper to replace the Collins Block on the northwest corner of the Public Square.
However, a vaudeville theater, which was announced in an Oct. 19, 1905, story in the Times-Democrat did become reality. The Orpheum Theatre, which Russell helped finance, opened on West Market Street on May 28, 1906. Department stores such as Grant’s and Woolworth’s also moved into properties controlled by Russell in the downtown area.
Meanwhile, the Russell home became a center of Lima society, providing fodder for the society pages. Typical was this story in the Times-Democrat from July 23, 1904. “Wednesday night, the beautiful Russell home on West Market Street was the scene of one of the most picturesque of the many summer parties enjoyed by the younger set. The affair was arranged in honor of Will and Charles Russell, of LaSalle, Illinois, (Russell’s sons from his first marriage) and was attended by about 40 young people, who were welcomed by these young men out on the spacious porch, which had been made a veritable fairy tale and with its myriads of colored incandescent lights, which bordered the porch, twined about the large pillars and were everywhere conceivable, while the many palms and cozy seats aided in making the scene an attractive one.”
As beautiful as their home was, the Russell often weren’t there to enjoy it. The couple traveled extensively with Lima’s newspapers regularly carrying reports on their departures for Paris, Havana or other destinations as well as their arrivals back in Lima. In 1907, the Russells departed for South America — again for work on phone lines — and didn’t return to Lima until July 1909. “With face and hands that have been tanned by Old Sol’s heated rays in the tropics, Mr. Russell presents a perfect picture of health and he and Mrs. Russell are welcoming their friends at their beautiful home on West Market Street in their cordial and hospitable manner,” the Lima Daily News wrote July 27, 1909. “Both love Lima and they are pleased to be again at home.”
The Russells love for their adopted hometown was evident after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917 when Russell purchased tens of thousands of dollars in Liberty Bonds to help finance the war effort.
As the war was winding down in 1918, the world was threatened with a new catastrophe — the Spanish flu. On Oct. 23, 1918, Russell visited the Board of Health and offered to pay for 10 nurses to aid the afflicted. “I am just back from Oklahoma and on board the train, all I heard was influenza,” Russell told the News. “If I can aid in stamping it out, or if I can relieve overworked mothers in homes now having the disease, I want to do it.”
In April 1923, after “disposing of business matters” at the First National Bank, where he was chairman of the board of directors, Russell departed by train for Chicago to attend to some business. From there, he headed to the French Lick Resort at West Baden, Indiana, for a few days’ rest. He became ill en route and died at French Lick of pneumonia April 29, 1923.
Russell is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, as is his widow, Beatrice, who survived him by nearly 24 years. After her death in 1947, it was announced she had left her home on West Market Street to the Lima YWCA.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.