Mona Bell, probably in 1936 on her world cruise. The location is not identified.
EDITH MONA BELL WAS BORN JANUARY 13, 1890, IN EAST GRAND FORKS, MINNESOTA, AN EASTERN SUBURB OF GRAND FORKS, NORTH DAKOTA. SHE WAS ONE OF THREE CHILDREN OF ESTHER M. MOLSON AND HENRY H. BELL.
The Bells owned a grocery store, which Esther ran most of the time because Henry traveled for his job building grain silos. Mona later would tell her son that her father was an alcoholic and, when home, frequently was drunk.
Mona always was tall for her age, and she grew into a tall woman five feet seven or eight inches. She was athletic and coordinated, and she enjoyed being outdoors. She learned to ride horses and to shoot rifles and pistols accurately.
She left home at the age of 18 and enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. She was a student there in the fall, winter, and spring terms of 1907-08, and for part of the fall term of 1908. Her classes included pedagogy (education), botany, geometry, German, political economics, English, and chemistry. She listed her home address as the family residence in East Grand Forks. She did not declare a major and did not earn a degree. She also played basketball, something her official records do not indicate. This was the extent of her formal education. She did not enroll in college again.
It is not clear today why Mona left the university, but it may have been to join a wild-West show. Sam B. Hill said his mother told him she performed as a bareback rider and trick shooter—rather like Annie Oakley, who was a star for arguably the most famous of the wild-West shows, Buffalo Bill's Wild West. The Wild West performed in three central Minnesota cities in August 1908—the first time back in the state since 1902—in five southern Minnesota cities in August 1909, and in Grand Forks, up north, on August 24, 1910.
Mona claimed to have performed in Buffalo Bill's show, but that appears unlikely for several reasons. First, Bill Cody was a traditionalist, and while women were participating in wild west shows by the mid-1890s as bronc riders, steer riders, fancy ropers, bulldoggers, and even performing the crowd-pleasing "diving horse" trick, Bill Cody's show was more like a rodeo and he did not employ very many specialists. He did have female performers, but many of them rode side-saddle. Second, there is no record today of Mona ever being on the payroll for the Wild West, which by 1907-08 was waning. The show was hugely popular when it debuted in 1883, but by the time the show was sold in a bankruptcy auction in Denver in 1913 dozens of imitators had come and gone, saturating the market for that type of entertainment. In fact, between 1883 and the early 1940s, when wild-West shows faded into history, there had been at least 115. The fact that Mona was never on Bill Cody's payroll, however, does not mean she was not an employee of the show somewhere at some time; there's just no record of it today. And third, female bareback riders were rare in wild-West shows. The first record of a woman riding bareback was in 1916 at a wild-West show in Chicago.
Nonetheless, Mona did compete in rodeos. Dressed as a man, she rode broncos, her son said. Mona knew she was attractive, and once won a bet with a couple of North Dakota cowboys. It was 1909, and she was 19 years old.
"Mother's Day was coming up, and this guy told her she wasn't very pretty," Sam B. Hill said. "So she made him a bet that she could pretty herself up and that she would have a photo taken to prove it. The bet was on. She rented a necklace for 5 cents, a flower for 5 cents, and a dress. She had the picture taken, and then she showed the guy and said, 'you're going to pay.' He paid. He had to admit she was a real fox."
By the next year, 1910, Mona had traded the cowgirl life for a sitdown job as a newspaper reporter in Grand Forks. She covered the city's society, as well as what then was widely called "women's news"—fashion, homemaking, cooking. She chafed at it, as she always would regarding what she considered "women's work," but it was a job, and she enjoyed the exhilaration of being a reporter, even on the society beat, her son said.
Mona met Sam Hill in Grand Forks that year, beginning a relationship that would last until his death 21 years later. One version of how they met is that he sought her out after seeing her perform with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which performed in Grand Forks on August 24, 1910. However, this is unlikely because a letter among Sam's correspondence in the archives at Maryhill Museum shows he was in Seattle on August 23—one day before the Wild West performed in Grand Forks—when he wrote to Charles H. Babcock, a long-time friend and former associate at the Great Northern Railway, that he had just returned home from the second International Road Congress, which was held in Brussels from July 31 to August 7. The more likely version of how Mona met Sam—the version told by her son, in fact-is that Sam gave a speech in Grand Forks—possibly on his way back to Seattle from the Road Congress—and that Mona covered the social aspects of the event for the newspaper. There is some support for this version in the fact that the following month, September 1910, Sam wrote to his niece that he was busy with his work promoting good roads. Precisely when he spoke in Grand Forks, however, is not clear.
Mona's mansion in 1940, five years after Mona was evicted. The Army Engineers remodeled the home into two apartments, one upstairs and the other on the main floor.
Though 33 years apart in age, Mona and Sam had an instant rapport, according to a story she told her son. According to the story, as they talked, Mona mentioned her interests, including horses and basketball, and Sam commented on her height and apparent strength. At this, she bet him she could lift Sam off the ground—a dare, probably, as he invited her to try. And she did—wrapped her arms around him and lifted him off the floor. He was impressed, and told her so. He gave her a ride home that evening. Having learned her birthday, after that he never failed to send her a card. Over the ensuing years, they kept in periodic contact by letter. They may or may not have traveled together. There is no record of it, but Sam B. Hill thought it was likely, especially on his father's periodic international trips.
Mona and Sam would become close in the 1920s, when Mona moved to Portland, where Sam was splitting his time with his home in Seattle. What did she see in him, a man clearly old enough to be her father—a suggestive fact in its own right?
"Sam was very debonair, and Mona was captivated by him," Mona's daughter-in-law, Virginia Hill, said.5 "She had a strong personality, and so did he. Mona Bell was very strong-minded, and he evidently liked that in her. I think she really liked who he was."
Mona did not stay long in Grand Forks after meeting Sam in 1910. According to her son, she moved to New York City where she worked for a company that produced advertising placards for street cars, and then crossed the country working for newspapers. "My mother always was proud of being a reporter," Sam B. Hill said.
"She worked for about 25 papers; God knows where they all were."
Minneapolis, Omaha, El Paso, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon)—all are possible stops in Mona's journalism career, according to family stories, but there is no proof of it today—no surviving articles with bylines, and no employment records, for example. Wherever she lived, she apparently kept her personal life personal, for the most part. She married twice; each ended in divorce. There are no surviving details of one of the marriages, and only a little about the other. Mona's relatives don't remember the man's name, but he was a dentist. The marriage was short-Mona's sister, Frances, convinced her to divorce the man or annul the marriage. He was the father of the only other child Mona conceived, a girl who was stillborn. Apparently, the dentist had something to do with the birth—or maybe he was just a bad dentist—because Mona usually referred to him as "The Butcher."