William Leonidas Wells was born in Painesville, Ohio on February 28, 1848, according to The Book of Chicagoans: A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men of the City of Chicago, 1911. Wells was the second of three sons born to Leonidas and Olive; the family lived in Painesville.
In the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, the family resided in Monmouth, Ohio. At age 12, Wells' occupation was shoemaker, the same as his father. A few years later, Wells "studied art at Chicago Acad. of Design and in independent life classes," according to The Book of Chicagoans.
Wells was the second of seven sons in the 1870 census; his occupation was painter. He "studied animal and bird life in Wis., Ill., Minn. and Ia.," and "married Mary Estell, of Monmouth, Ill., Aug. 22, 1879," according to The Book of Chicagoans.
Wells and his wife settled in Evanston, Illinois where his occupation was artist; his home address, 328 Chicago Avenue, was listed in the 1890 Evanston, Illinois Directory. He contributed to the 1892 Chicago Columbian Exposition. The Daily Inter Ocean (Illinois), March 13, 1892, said, "the historic picturesque floats…are to be a feature of the World's Fair exhibit, the artistic work will be done by Mr. W.L. Wells as designer and Mr. Fawcett Robinson, the artist in papier mache…There are to be twenty-four of these floats…[that] will float barge-like in the waters of the lagoon, and will afford a spectacle as delightful to the eyes as it will be edifying to the mind." According to The Book of Chicagoans, Wells "followed painting of game birds and animals for a number of years" and was "head of art dept. Chicago Tribune since 1898."
In the 1900 census the family, which included two of his three daughters, lived in Evanston at 1327 Chicago Avenue. His occupation was artist. Wells took over F.M. Howarth's Old Opie Dilldock's Stories in October 1908.
The Wells family remained in Evanston but had moved to 418 Greenleaf Street in 1910. His occupation was "Head of Artist Dept. Chicago Tribune." His strip, Old Nicodemus Nimble, began on June 24, 1915. His wife passed away before the 1920 census which recorded Wells, his daughter Constance McKinnie, a widow, and granddaughter Miriam, in Edwardsville, Illinois at 431 East Vandalia Street. Later that year they moved to St. Louis, Missouri. On November 15, 1920, the Edwardsville Intelligencer newspaper wrote about him:
The Artgravure section of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat yesterday contained two very fine reproductions of paintings of game birds, the work of WIlliam L. Wells of 705 St. Louis street. They were given prominent position, as two of four on the first page of the section.
Mr. Wells is one of the foremost painters of wild birds, especially the game birds in this section of the country. At present he is exhibiting twenty-five of forty paintings which he has recently completed. Mr. Wells also does some work in landscapes.
Wells was a major influence on his granddaughter, Miriam, as reported in the Edwardsville Intelligencer on December 9, 1929.
Mrs. Donnell Hofmeier, of 918 Grand Avenue this city, won a first prize of $100 for a portrait entered in the modern painting exhibit at the St. Louis Artists Guild in St. Louis Saturday night. The composition is entered under her maiden name, Miriam McKinnie.
The portrait is of an Edwardsville girl, whose identity was not revealed today. It is entitled "Mae", and presumably it is the given name of her subject….
…Mrs. Hofmeier is a [grand]daughter of the late William Wells, former resident of Edwardsville, whose death occurred a few weeks ago. He was one of the best known wild bird painters in the United States.
On October 22, 1929 the Chicago Daily Tribune reported Wells had passed away on October 17, 1929.
Word reached Chicago yesterday of the death in Minneapolis of William L. Wells, for many years art director of The Chicago Tribune. He died on Thursday following an illness of six months. He was 81 years old. Funeral services, which were private, were conducted at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Charles Marshall, on Saturday….
...Mr. Wells is survived by another daughter, Mrs. William, T. Baird, Edwardsville, Ill., six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Two brothers are Charles K. Wells, Kansas City, Kas., and Archibald C. Wells of Washington, D.C. Mr. Wells was one of seven sons, and a descendant of Thomas Welles, first colonial governor of Connecticut.
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