A Woman Alone

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Living alone in the woods of northern Minnesota, Mona Bell once amazed a neighbor by shooting a dozen clothes pins off a line at 25 yards, firing revolvers from both hands in rapid succession. “You tell the boys there’s a woman back here who knows how to shoot, and will shoot,” she said, calmly. He did.

Eccentric, aggressive, frugal, and friendly to a point, Mona’s few neighbors sensed she was a woman with a past, perhaps a notorious past, but no one asked. In fact, her reclusive life in Minnesota was stark contrast to her earlier life in Oregon, where she had a brief, public role in Pacific Northwest history, battling the federal government after the Army commandeered her hilltop mansion and surrounding riverfront acreage in the Columbia River Gorge to build Bonneville Dam.

Mona’s impressive mansion 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon, was built in 1928 as a gift from her lover, the flamboyant entrepreneur Sam Hill, whose lasting works include the Maryhill Museum and the Columbia River Highway. That same year, their child, a boy, was born in Portland.

Three years later Sam, 33 years Mona’s senior, was dead. The government condemned the mansion she loved, offering compensation Mona would deride as a pittance. For 15 months she battled the government in federal court with two of Sam’s longtime friends at her side, a former Oregon governor as her attorney and the current governor as a witness.

While she won three times more than the government offered, she never outgrew the pain of losing both the man and the place she loved in quick succession. Her son was her obligation, but with her new wealth, travel and flowers, particularly lilies, became her passion. Later, her daughter-in-law would say, “she just was not cut out to be a mother. She was a woman alone, and she was OK with it.”