Wild West bearcat Mona Bell was like Annie Oakley, with an edge
Although she's most remembered for being the mistress of a famous man, journalist and rodeo performer Mona Bell Hill was, on her own, one of the most interesting people ever to live in Oregon — and, to the government, one of the most vexing.
By Finn J.D. John — June 25, 2017
In the summer of 1936, when Edith Mona Bell Hill moved into her cozy hunting cabin on the shore of Dunbar Lake in north-central Minnesota, the neighbors didn’t really know what to make of her.
In fact, they didn’t really know who she was — although she’d owned and occasionally visited the cabin off and on for a decade or so. It was said that she was a distant relative of railroad baron James J. Hill. She certainly had money; although she dressed very simply, she drove a great expensive beast of a luxury car.
She was a single woman living alone with her eight-year-old son, Sam. But within a few days of her moving in, any neighborhood crooks knew better than to think she’d make a tempting burglary or robbery victim. She took the opportunity to make a little demonstration when a neighbor, Art Schimanski, came to see her.
“They talked for a few minutes,” recalled David Adams, whose family bought the property after Mona Bell moved away, in an interview with author John Harrison. “And then Mona said, ‘Stay right there, I want to show you something.’ Art said she went into the cabin and came out wearing a gun belt with two six-shooters. She then turned and shot the clothespins off her clothesline at a distance of about 25 yards, firing one gun after the other — left, right, left, right. Art said it was like bang-bang-bang-bang in rapid succession. He said he was aghast. Then she said to Art, ‘You tell the boys there’s a woman back here who knows how to shoot, and will shoot.’ He did.”
Mona Bell was one of the most interesting people ever to live in Oregon. Yet she’s mostly remembered, when she’s remembered at all, as the mistress of quirky railroad executive Samuel Hill (not to be confused with James J. Hill, his father-in-law, for whom he worked). Samuel is in turn best known for his pet public-service project, the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway; the Maryhill Museum and its adjacent Stonehenge replica; and the Peace Arch at the Canadian border.
But, interesting and colorful a character as Sam Hill was, he was thoroughly outclassed in that regard by Mona. To be fair, everyone was.
Mona Bell first arrived in Oregon in the 1910s; she left in 1936 after the federal government seized her home for the Bonneville Dam project. Throughout her life, people who knew her always compared her to movie stars: devil-may-care Myrna Loy in “The Thin Man,” Katharine Hepburn in “The African Queen” — and, of course, Annie Oakley.
The Annie Oakley comparison is particularly apropos, because it’s entirely likely that Mona Bell knew her. As a young woman, Mona was in the same business. While a student at the University of North Dakota, where she was studying to be a teacher, she dropped out to join a wild-west show — either Buffalo Bill Cody’s original Wild West Show (featuring Annie Oakley) or one of the many competing ones that had sprung up to tour the country.
Like Oakley, Mona did trick shooting; she also could sing; she did bareback riding; and she even did bronco busting, usually dressed in men’s clothes so as not to shock her Edwardian-age audience.
The Wild West show racket was one of four occupations Mona Bell pursued in her early years while relentlessly traveling as much as possible. The other three were teaching, advertising, and journalism. She’d take a teaching job in a town, work it for a year, move on to another and get a job at the newspaper, work that for a few months, then quit that job to join a wild-west show, and so on.
But journalism soon became her primary line, particularly as slowly changing societal norms, along with her growing reputation as a skilled and fearless reporter, allowed her to leave the boring, frumpy society pages behind. Mona Bell was, in fact, the first female crime-beat reporter in the country.
And it was through journalism that she met the love of her life: Samuel Hill. It happened in 1910, after she interviewed him for a story.
Hill, of course, found the dashing red-haired bearcat fascinating; it’s hard to imagine what man would not. And unlike most men, he was not intimidated by her prowess and competence, having plenty of his own. Hill was still nominally married to his Catholic wife, from whom he was completely estranged; but for religious reasons they could not divorce.
Hill and Bell soon were enmeshed in a torrid, decades-long love affair. Throughout it, Bell remained utterly faithful to Hill; but Hill strayed a good deal. The cruelest cut, though, came when she learned that although he loved her, he loved another woman more — he had been carrying the torch for the queen of Romania since he’d first met her in 1893 when she was a 17-year-old princess and he a 36-year-old lawyer lobbying her royal parents to invest in the Great Northern Railroad.
But Mona Bell loved Sam Hill enough that she was willing to tolerate being number 2. She first came to Portland to be close to him; at the time, he was working with legendary highway engineer Samuel Lancaster on the Columbia Gorge Highway.
Throughout the 1910s and early 1920s, Bell continued her career as an itinerant journalist, keeping as near to Sam as she could so that they could be together as much as possible. Then in 1927, she turned up pregnant with his son.
Sam professed himself delighted and promptly called in a marker with his cousin, Edgar Hill, who traveled to Portland to “make an honest woman” of Mona. Their marriage was a charade that seems laughable to modern eyes: Edgar and Mona were married in the style (but very much not the spirit) of Quaker practice, with Sam officiating as minister. Then, following a few photographs of the happy couple posing on a beach as if honeymooning (in which Edgar glares into the camera like a trapped gorilla) the happy couple finished the day with a trip across the river to Vancouver for a quick divorce, and presumably the groom was thereafter left to his own devices whilst the bride and the minister gallivanted off on the honeymoon.
Motherhood didn’t change Mona much. Most sources agree she was not very good at it. Samuel gave her a hilltop mansion overlooking the Columbia River at Bonneville, but she didn’t stay in it as much as most new mothers would. Baby Sam was left with relatives many times while she traveled off on the rodeo circuit or to travel overseas.
Then, in February 1931, Samuel Hill developed the infection that would shortly kill him.
Mona traveled to the hospital to see him one last time. Refused entry, she first disguised herself as a nurse and tried to slip in; this didn’t work, and she was recognized and ejected. Realizing that all the nurses knew one another, she tried again, dressing as a janitor. This time, it worked, and she got to say goodbye to him before he slipped away.
Perhaps as a tonic to her broken heart, Mona left shortly thereafter for a tour with the Schell Bros. Circus, with which she was billed as a cowgirl radio singer doing old-time and cowboy songs.
She was getting older, though, and the wild pleasures of bronco busting and trick shooting were starting to give way to the more contemplative pleasures of gardening. In her later years, Mona’s great passion was flowers and gardens. By 1936, her Bonneville mansion was a spectacular showplace.
And that may be why, when the government started construction of the Bonneville Dam, it was so very insistent on including the house in its eminent-domain proceedings. It needed 14 acres of Mona Bell’s land at the foot of the bluff for the construction; but the house on the bluff was not in the way. Mona was convinced the government was determined to take it because the project manager wanted the house for himself. If so, she had the last laugh, if a bitter one; the manager was transferred back east just after the house was handed over.
Mona Bell asked for about $100,000 in compensation for the property. The government laughed and offered about $25,000. And there the battle lines were drawn as the case headed off to court.
Nearly a year and two trials later, the government was forced to pay Mona roughly $80,000 for the place. It paid up only after being directly threatened by the judge. With much bitterness despite her courtroom victory (which had cost her nearly half the amount she won in legal fees), Mona shook the dust of the Beaver State from her feet and moved back to that lakeside cabin in Minnesota.
In Minnesota, the aging Mona carried on, living very frugally to pay for the extensive world traveling that she still loved and keeping a magnificent garden. She later moved to Riverside, Calif., where, on June 1, 1981, she died at age 91.
In a playful song about a Viennese composer named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, singer-satirist Tom Lehrer ends his final verse with the words, “The body that reached her embalmment was one that had known how to live!” The same, and then some, can certainly be said of Edith Mona Bell Hill.
(Sources: Harrison, John A. A Woman Alone: Mona Bell, Sam Hill and the Mansion on Bonneville Rock. Portland: Amato, 2009; Tuhe, John E. Sam Hill: The Prince of Castle Nowhere. Portland: Timber, 1983)