Naming Our Town: A concise history of the naming of the City of Bells, Texas
By Dr. Gary N. Sisson, © 2022
Jul 26, 2022
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Approximately twelve miles east of Sherman, along Texas Highway 56 at its intersection with U.S. Highway 69, a traveler will find the City of Bells, Texas.  Situated in the midst of the rolling hills and prairies of northeast Texas and only a few miles south of the Red River, Bells and its neighboring communities lie in close proximity to Mill, Cornelison, Choctaw and Bois d’Arc creeks.  This is the fertile land that inspired Colonel David Crockett to proclaim in his last letter home to his family in Tennessee, just prior to his death at the Alamo, “I expect in all probilaty [sic] to settle on the Bordar [sic] or Choctaw Bio [sic] of Red River that I have no doubt is the richest country in the world.”

Portrait of Davy Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman

Unfortunately, our buckskin-clad hero did not live to see his dream come true.  His widow and some of his children ultimately claimed his headright near the Brazos River in Hood County, but there were others, some of whom had also served in the Texas militia, who did obtain land grants near present-day Bells.  Many of their descendants still reside and are active in the Bells area, including the Dugan and Washburn families.  Numerous books and accounts have been written about the beginnings of Fannin County and that part of Fannin which became Grayson County.  I encourage readers of this article to seek out those well researched sources for more in-depth knowledge, as it is my intention to focus on the etiology and toponymy of Bells. 

Choosing a town name to honor an individual or a family has been so common an approach that my first thought was perhaps a family named Bell or Bells was involved in the beginnings of the northeast Grayson County area. 

Surprisingly, one of the early settlers in our area was a William W. Bell.  According to family tradition, Bell was born in England on February 14, 1794 and came to America at an early age.  He married Elizabeth Weaver on September 6, 1821 in Monroe County, Mississippi, where their four older children were born prior to their arrival in Milam County in the Republic of Texas in October of 1836. Two more children were born in Milam County prior to the Bell family relocating to Fannin County in 1842, settling north of Savoy, near Warren and the present Fannin-Grayson line. Shortly thereafter, the youngest of their seven children was born. Sadly, William died in 1845, but he had acquired a substantial amount of land during their short time in Texas. 

Elizabeth and their children continued for a time in northwest Fannin County near the Virginia Point United Methodist Church.  Many of them are buried in the nearby Bell-Youree Cemetery.  Their second oldest son, Darius Johnson/Johnston Bell, married and relocated into Grayson County. One of Darius’ daughters, Ida, married William Fleming Cobb, whose father, S.B. Cobb, was appointed in 1871 as the first postmaster of the Duganville Post Office. Although the post offices appear to have played an integral role in the naming of Bells, an association with this Bell family strong enough to inspire the town name seems unlikely based on my research. 

Traditional accounts of the naming of Bells often include references to church bells ringing to greet the arrival of the railroad trains. I have been unable to locate any extant records to substantiate that legend, but diligent research of contemporary writings during those years of origin clearly links the arrival of the railroads to the appearance of two competing communities that in due time combined to become Bells. 

My research shows that the ultimate naming of Bells may have been an occasionally divisive collaboration between the railroads, the post offices, and the leaders of the two communities involved.  With no eyewitness accounts to reference, an honest and comprehensive approach was necessary to accumulate as much information as possible concerning this naming process. 

The Texas and Pacific Railroad, built from Sherman in Grayson County to Brookston in Lamar County in 1872 and 1873, created numerous stations or stops along its path.  In some cases, there was no named community or post office at a designated stop, leaving railroad officials to create a name.  A number of stops were named for railroad company or government officials who helped in establishing the railroads.  One example of this practice is the community of Windom in Fannin County, presumably named for William Windom, who was the United States Secretary of the Treasury at one time in his career and an outspoken supporter of the railroads as they were being built. A Windom, Kansas and a Windom, Minnesota were also named for him, both designated stops along the railroads in those areas. A more familiar example in the Bells area is Whitewright, named for the President (at that time) of the Denison and Southeastern Railway Company, William Whitewright, Jr., of New York. As we will examine later, the Denison and Southeastern also had a voice in the naming of Bells. 

Two stops east of Sherman shown on an 1876 Texas and Pacific map were Choctaw, apparently so named due to its proximity to Choctaw Creek, and Washburn, likely named for the family whose land surrounded that stop. These communities each established post offices in 1874 named, respectively, Choctaw and Pink Hill. The T&P appears to have renamed their Washburn stop Pink Hill to match the name of the post office, as shown on later maps.

As news of the building of the railroads spread, some ambitious local citizens saw opportunities to purchase available land, or to use their existing land, along the paths of the new railroads to form towns to which their own names would be attached, hoping to benefit financially from the presence of the railroad while creating legacies for themselves and their posterity.  With the Texas and Pacific having received a federal charter to build in March of 1871, it is probably no coincidence that an application was entered in official Post Office Department records on March 20th, 1871 for a post office named Dugan(s)ville on the headright of early settler Daniel Dugan in Grayson County (some 3-4 miles northwest of present-day Bells).  For undocumented reasons the post office was discontinued on September 11, 1871, possibly because an exact location was not given as required by the Post Office Department.  An application was then re-entered with the Department on May 27, 1873 for a post office again named Dugan(s)ville, again on the Daniel Dugan headright.  Henry P. Dugan, one of the younger sons of Daniel Dugan, was appointed Postmaster on July 7th, 1873.  The general headright location given on those two Duganville post office applications is verified by the application for the post office at Pink Hill on February 26, 1874, giving the distance to the Duganville post office as six miles NORTH of Pink Hill. It is important to note that the Duganville that ultimately became the south part of Bells was not in the same location as what had been previously referred to as Duganville, that broad area on the Daniel Dugan headright surrounding this early post office and “Dugan’s Store”. Various articles appeared in the Denison Daily News between August 1873 and August 1877 concerning the people of and the activities in this first Duganville. 

News began to spread by 1876 and 1877 that citizens of Denison in Grayson County and Greenville in Hunt County were teaming with New York financiers to build a railroad between their two towns, prompting a flurry of activity that is well documented in Grayson County deed records.  In August 1877, Dr. Josiah Singleton Bailey, a physician from South Carolina who was practicing in Savoy in Fannin County at the time, purchased 150 acres of land originally patented to James P. Dumas and the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railway Company in 1867. This land appears to include most of the right-of-way and north of that portion of the Texas and Pacific Railroad built through what is now Bells.  In September 1877, the Dallas Daily Herald reported that ground had just been broken in Grayson County for the new Denison and Southeastern Railroad.  By November of the same year, George Cox Dugan, oldest son of Daniel Dugan, deeded the right-of-way to the new Denison and Southeastern Railway Company through Dugan lands. The elderly Daniel Dugan had passed away in 1861, leaving extensive land holdings northwest of present-day Bells.  George C. Dugan himself was the original patentee on lands in the Cox and Crawford surveys that are now part of what became the second Duganville and ultimately the south part of Bells.  On January 3, 1878, the Denison Daily News reported that the Denison and Southeastern Railroad was now completed to the Texas and Pacific.  No location was given, as records clearly indicate no town or post office had yet been established at the intersection. 

Possibly hoping to be the first hat tossed into the ring, Dr. Bailey applied on February 12, 1878 to establish a post office named Bailey Junction on his newly acquired property at the new railroad crossing. The Postmaster in Savoy certified the application. For undocumented reasons, the Bailey Junction post office was quickly discontinued on March 21, 1878. Interestingly, the Pink Hill post office was also discontinued in March 1878, but re-established in April 1878. Perhaps it was determined that the Pink Hill and Savoy post offices were close enough to properly serve the area.  During that same time period, Dr. Bailey purchased an adjacent 88 acres of land that had been part of the same patent as the first parcel he had purchased in what was to become the north part of Bells. 

Newspaper articles written and deed records recorded contemporaneously support a zealous contest between the younger, ambitious newcomer, Dr. J. S. Bailey, and the older George C. Dugan, patriarch of the respected and well-established Dugan clan. On April 3, 1878, Dugan filed a town plat dated March 16, 1878 for Duganville (no “s”) with the Grayson County Clerk, donating his land (which is now in the south part of Bells) for said plat. On back-to-back dates, almost appearing to be a coordinated, cooperative effort, both Bailey and Dugan filed deeds selling land to the Texas and Pacific Railway Company for a side track, a y-track and a depot building in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of the two railroads on April 11 and April 12, 1878. Mr. Dugan felt compelled to add “at or near the town of Duganville” to his deed.

Appearing rather impulsive, Dr. Bailey had begun to build Bailey Junction as early as January 1878 without filing a town plat.  On January 14, 1878, the Denison Daily News quoted the Bonham News that a drug store would shortly be opened at Bailey Junction.  Two days later, the same newspaper appears to poke fun at Dr. Bailey’s circular promoting his new town as “the future great city of Texas.” Mr. Dugan was also actively selling, and by some accounts giving away, plots in his new Duganville. 

By February 10, 1878, the Denison Daily News reported that the new town would be called neither Bailey Junction nor Duganville.  It is not at all evident who made that decision, but it is unlikely that it was either Bailey or Dugan.  Neither the Bailey Junction nor the new Duganville post offices were yet established.  Who else had an interest in settling this naming controversy?  The answer is the railway companies.

With no previous post office or train depot (and maybe not even a stop) at the location of this newly formed railroad intersection, the Texas and Pacific had no previous incentive to come up with a name. On the other hand, the brand-new Denison and Southeastern Railroad, simply by intersecting the T&P, had created a highly desirable crossroads.  It is no coincidence that the same article on February 10 ended by stating that Whitewright was named after the President of the Union Trust Company in New York, William Whitewright, Jr., who also was at one time the President of the Denison and Southeastern Railway Company.

It is apparent that the first name chosen (sometime before February 6) for this new crossroads by the railroad officials was Bellville (not Belle, but Bell).  A February 6, 1878 Denison Daily News article called it “Bellville, or Bailey Junction as it is called by some.”  The rail had arrived there on January 3, and the article stated that trains would be commencing to that “station” soon.  It becomes obvious that the newspaper was in communication with railroad officials, who were most likely becoming frustrated by the Bailey-Dugan feud. 

The previously mentioned article from February 10 ruled out Bailey Junction, Duganville and Bellville in favor of Bellplain (not Belle, but Bell).  There was already a Bellville in Texas, the seat of Austin County.  Then a March 9, 1878 Denison Daily News article claimed Dr. Bailey had “so far outwitted Mr. Dugan” and the Denison and Southeastern railroad by securing a post office, so the town would be called Bailey Junction.  As already mentioned, the Bailey Junction post office was discontinued shortly thereafter. 

By March 19, the Daily News reported that the Pink Hill and the old Duganville post offices would be discontinued and all mail from those would “go to the junction, Bellplain.”  Ed S. Aston would continue there as Postmaster.  Both Bailey Junction and Duganville continued to send news items from their communities to the newspaper, in spite of the railroad’s designation of their STATION as Bellplain.  In one of the reports from Duganville, published in the Denison Daily News on June 14, 1878, readers were reminded that the name of their post office was Duganville, not Bellplain or Bailey Junction.  It was observed that there was already a Bellplain in Callahan County, Texas, so any mail sent to Bellplain would wind up there.  This is substantiated by Postal Department records which show the Duganville post office NAME was not discontinued during this time frame, and a new application for a post office named Bellplain was never entered.  A June 18, 1878 article in the Denison Daily News reprinted an article from the Sherman Register making light of the entire naming debacle and published a defensive response from a reader in Bailey Junction.

Mr. Dugan’s efforts to attract the railroad’s attention toward his new town seemed to be paying off, but the naming of the community appeared to be falling squarely into the hands of the railroad.  As previously shown, the Postmaster and residents south of the T&P were undeterred in their naming efforts, insisting that the name of their POST OFFICE would be Duganville to avoid any mail addressed to Bellplain winding up in Callahan County, an assertion repeated by a Duganville resident in the Denison Daily News of January 31, 1879.  During this time frame, however, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (nicknamed the “Katy”, short for the K&T part of the company name) had begun operating the trains along this track.  A Denison Daily News article on January 28, 1879 referred to “S.D. Hall, agent of the M., K. & T. at Bellplain.”

In an apparent final effort to promote Bailey Junction, Dr. Bailey filed a plat for his town with the Grayson County Clerk on August 4, 1879. He continued selling lots in his town through 1885, but perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, by 1886 he was purchasing land in Fannin County, ultimately relocating there and filing a plat in 1888 for a town that still bears his name, Bailey, Texas. 

The naming impasse must have reached a breaking point by the fall of 1879 when some sort of meeting of the minds appears to have taken place, possibly due to continued confusion with mail service addressed to Bellplain rather than Duganville (there was still no post office in Bailey Junction).  Post Office Department records indicate that on September 8, 1879, the Duganville post office changed its name to Bell’s (note the apostrophe).  The Denison Daily News reported this change on September 14, 1879.  A few days later, on September 27, the Daily News reported that on October 1, a big celebration was to take place at the crossroads, announcing that Bellplain, Duganville and Bailey Junction would be united and “christened” Bell Station.  The Station part of the name was never actually adopted, and the community had a unified name, whether by acclamation or acquiescence.

In my research I discovered a map entitled “Map of the Denison & South Eastern Rwy. Showing the Location & Land Lines of the First Twenty-One Miles” (drawn by O.B. Gunn, Chief Engineer and dated May 30, 1878).  At the intersection with the Texas and Pacific, the engineer drafted a town, a y-track and a side track, all in the southwest quadrant of the crossroads. I am guessing that the ink dot in the southeast quadrant of the intersection on Bailey’s property represented a proposed passenger depot and that the ink dot within the side track of the Denison and Southeastern on Dugan’s property represented a proposed freight depot, but the town (all south of the Texas & Pacific) was clearly labeled Bellplain, a name the railroad continued to use until the name Bells was adopted.  So, what was the railroad’s obsession with the name Bell (Bellville, Bellplain, Bell’s)?  When one understands the somewhat egocentric nature of many of the movers and shakers who “get things done”, like building railroads, the answer is no surprise.  There is a certification on the bottom right section of the map which reads as follows: 

“I, Edward R. Bell, Vice President of the Denison & Southeastern Railway Company do hereby certify that this is a map of the first twenty-one miles of the Railroad of said Company showing the line as located and built and the curves thereof.  Dated June 20, 1878.” 

Edward R. Bell
Edward R. Bell was born February 28, 1860 in Manhattan, New York, the youngest of five children born to Isaac Bell, Sr. and Adelaide Mott. Isaac, Sr. was the principal owner of the Old Dominion Steamship Line.  He was noted for his works of philanthropy and had been connected with many financial and mercantile enterprises in and around New York City. Isaac, Jr., the oldest brother of Edward, was a successful cotton broker and later diversified into other businesses. He was also a primary investor in the Commercial Cable Company, the corporation that broke the monopoly on the Transatlantic Cable. He served as U.S. Minister to the Netherlands from 1885 to 1888. With such examples to follow, it is no wonder that Edward was involved in so many financial endeavors. The 1880 Federal Census of New York City shows his occupation as “real estate insurance broker”.

The Articles of Incorporation of the Denison and Southeastern Railway Company were officially filed with the Grayson County Clerk on August 30, 1877.  Among the first Board of Directors therein listed was Edward R. Bell and William Whitewright.  The stock subscribers who signed the document included Edward R. Bell and Isaac Bell (probably Isaac, Jr.). With two brothers from such a prominent family actively helping to finance the new railroad, it was fitting to honor them in naming the station at the new crossroads, regardless of who made that final decision.  As previously mentioned, William Whitewright was so honored a few miles further down the tracks.

Mr. Whitewright and the Bell brothers had many mutual business and investment dealings during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Henry Varnum Poor (of Standard and Poor’s fame), published the 1879 Handbook of the Railroads of the United States which shows William Whitewright as President and E.R. Bell as Vice President of the Denison and Southeastern Railroad. Isaac Bell and William Whitewright are listed as Directors of the Louisville, New Albany and Chicago Railway. Poor’s 1892 Handbook of Investment Securities shows both Isaac Bell and E.R. Bell as Directors of Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company. It is unclear whether this was Isaac Bell, Sr. or Jr.  Isaac Bell, Sr. died in 1897 at 82 years of age. Sadly, all but one of the Bell siblings died young.  Isaac Bell, Jr. died in 1889 at 42.  Valentine Mott Bell died in infancy. Louis Valentine Mott died in 1925 at 71.  Olivia Mott (Bell) Barclay died in 1894 at 39. Edward R. Bell died on July 7, 1902 at 42 of typhoid fever. They are all buried in New York City. Edward’s obituary further states that he served as a member of the Board of Education and as a Park Commissioner.  He and his brother, Louis V. Bell, had recently retired as partner members of the stock exchange and sold their exchange seats.

It was probably no mistake that when the Duganville Post Office changed its name in 1879, Bell’s was spelled with an apostrophe, the possessive form of Bell, perhaps to emphasize that the newly unified town was named for Edward and/or Isaac Bell in the spirit of cooperation with the railroad officials.  However, almost all other documents and newspaper articles recorded thereafter, including the incorporation of the town of Bells in 1883, show Bells with no apostrophe. In a series of orders issued by the Post Office Department in the 1890s, post offices were encouraged to use short names and to drop possessive forms (such as Bell’s). Possibly in response to these orders, the post office name was officially changed from Bell’s to Bells on June 20, 1893. As for George C. Dugan, who died in 1881 (leaving his town legacy in the hands of his son, William Preston Dugan), and Dr. Josiah S. Bailey, who left town shortly thereafter, there is an old adage that, when resolving conflicts, the correct solution has probably been reached when both parties are equally unhappy. We may never know how unhappy those two gentlemen were, but I suspect that the post office and railroad officials and most of the townspeople were relieved by the end of the contest. 

As previously stated, there are no known existing documents proving exactly how Bells received its name, and there are no known recorded eyewitness accounts of the official naming decision, but meticulous examination of as much relevant contemporary material as I was able to locate leads me to opine that the citizens of the City of Bells, Texas owe most of our gratitude for the name of our shared hometown to the Denison and Southeastern Railroad and Edward R. Bell.

For more information, please contact the author: garynsisson@gmail.com