Iona McLaughlin Linnemann McColl was born in 1855, although the exact details of her birth remain a mystery. By most accounts, she was born to the McLaughlins, a young while pioneer couple, as they crossed Oregon to the fledgling colony of Portland, which then had a population of only 400. Tragedy struck soon after their arrival, as the newborn's mother fell ill and died during the following winter. With only her father to take care of her, the young Iona was taken in by Catharine and John Linnemann, a German couple who lived next door.
Iona McColl is buried alongside her husband, Gregory, in Gresham Pioneer Cemetery, lot 158.
Growing up on the Linnemans farm in what is now Gresham, Iona attended Pleasant Valley School. Shortly after graduating, she married Dr. Gregory Peter McColl (born 1849), with whom she lived for many years in the Gresham area. During this time she raised several children, including Charles R. McColl, who would eventually follow in his father's footsteps to become a doctor.
Already respected in the Gresham community by this time, Iona was appointed as Gresham's postmaster in 1898, replacing the previous postmaster, Lewis Shattuck, and becoming the town’s first female postmaster. While her predecessors in the role had served for perhaps a year or two before a new appointment was made, Iona stayed in office for nearly 16 years. During this time, she oversaw the development of a rural delivery service and an international money-order business, as well as the distribution of Gresham’s local newspaper at the time, the East Portland Vindicator.
As postmaster (although local sources of the time almost always called her “postmistress”), Iona observed that Gresham still lacked many necessary elements of a thriving community. Gresham residents, she noted with dismay, were forced to travel the whole distance to Portland simply to obtain a library card. Putting her post office's resources to use, she devised a system whereby the people of Gresham could come to her and be issued a library card.
Starting a library
At that time, it was still necessary to venture all the way to the Portland Public Library to check out books, even with a library card. Enterprising residents, however, realized that a county tax for public libraries could be used to remedy this. As the community's only issuer of library cards, Iona was a central figure among Gresham's literary enthusiasts, and she quickly caught wind of their plan to establish a library in town, and offered the vacant room above the post office as an ideal location. The county tax money was put toward renovating and furnishing the room, and Iona used her connection to the library to register the post office as a deposit station for the Portland library. Before long, the cozy nook over Iona’s office was home to a collection of around 100 volumes, with her as its self-appointed head librarian.
Iona’s had numerous other responsibilities, however, and only a small handful of locals were able to volunteer their time to help her maintain the space. As such, her reading room was only open a few times a week, and then only for a few hours at a time. The reading room closed briefly in 1905, which the Library Association of Portland attributed to "the difficulty of finding a librarian willing to give his time to it." However, Timothy Brownhill and H.L. St. Clair (editors of the East Multnomah Record and later the Gresham Outlook newspapers) helped drum up renewed community interest in the reading room, which reopened later the same year. The Library Association contributed more than 100 new books and magazines to the collection, and hired a trained librarian, Aida Culey, to oversee the space.
Even after her tenure as the town's unofficial first librarian came to a close, Iona allowed the operation she had gotten off the ground to continue in her post office until 1912, when its growing collection necessitated a larger space. A new library was funded by the Carnegie Foundation.
Even after she retired from her role as postmaster and the library had moved elsewhere, Iona heart remained in the business of libraries. Her granddaughter, Mary Dimick, reminisced many years later in 1983 about a similar collection that Iona maintained in her own home after she retired from the post office. "In Grandma's house," she said, "there was a library of sorts, a book-borrowing really." Of her mother – Iona's daughter, Nina McColl – she also reflected that "Wherever we lived…[she] started a library if there were none or volunteered to work if there were one."
Iona’s legacy as postmaster also endured. The family's significant footprint on local history and civic life was well-documented at this time, and when the time came to find a new site for a post office in 1930, the chosen site was none other than the final home of Iona’s mother, Catharine Linnemann.
Iona passed away in 1934, and was buried alongside Peter in Gresham Pioneer Cemetery. Not far from them are Catharine and John Linneman, also buried together after the former's death in 1926 – nearly 30 years after her husband, and 74 years after their arrival in Oregon.