Background photo is an image of Highway 395 on the shores of Abert Lake, made by F.J.D. John in 2016.
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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.