Joyce McElree Lee Lowell, a grandchild of the “pioneer mother” of Laguna Beach, Catherine Aurora Brenizer Skidmore Brooks, died Sept. 1 in Long Beach. She was 95.
Lowell’s mother, Anita Skidmore, was one of four siblings from the marriage of Catherine and George Skidmore. Her widowed mother, Catherine, married Nathaniel (Nate) Brooks, one of the town’s early homesteaders.
In an interview in 2012, Lowell described her grandmother as “a wonderful woman with eyes like the sky. She was very philanthropic and took care of the sick with various home remedies, cold packs, never charging for this care.”
Writers Merle and Mabel Ramsey in their 1976 “The First Hundred Years in Laguna Beach,” titled Nate Brooks the “father of Laguna Beach.” He and his brother William homesteaded 480 acres in central
Laguna granted in the 1880s and ‘90s and Nate subdivided the coastal area from Thalia to Pearl Streets. Upon Nate’s death in 1914, Catherine inherited his holdings, which were managed by her sons, Joe and Guy Skidmore. They created subdivisions throughout Laguna Beach, including Sunset Hills (Van Dyke, Diamond, and Crestview streets), areas of North Laguna and Coast Royal in South Laguna
In 1925, the Skidmore brothers gave Laguna Beach the water system they had developed. Other contributions to the community included the parks and beach paths of Coast Royal. They also supplied the land for the art museum and part of the land where the high school was built, according to Lowell. She loved to tell her family that her Uncle Joe, who wrote science fiction for the magazine “Amazing Stories,” sprinkled wild flower seeds from his airplane while flying over the hills of Laguna.
During this time, Anita Skidmore (for whom Anita Street was named), married Maurice McElree, a real estate developer. The couple had two children, Courtney and Joyce, who was born Jan. 2, 1920, in Santa Ana. The family later lived in Sausalito, Oakland, Orange and Pasadena. For a time they also lived in the Hemenway house, the storied log cabin in Laguna Canyon.
When Joyce was 6 her father disappeared, never to be heard from again. From then on, Catherine gave her daughter and grandchildren a home in Laguna Beach.
Thus Joyce grew up among her extended family, including the families of her uncles and Aunt Lee.
Lee Skidmore married Oscar Farman. Their daughter Thelma married Lyndon Aufdenkamp. Lynn and Thelma were active in the theater and Lynn was prominent in improving the town’s water system and served for years on the board of the Metropolitan Water District.
The idyllic life in Laguna came to an end with a downturn in the lot sales market and the onset of the Great Depression. Lowell explained simply, “We had been rich, but then we had nothing. Joe had a Lincoln. Guy had an Essex.” The banks, she recalled, “took everything.”
When Joyce was 12, her mother moved the two children to an apartment in Long Beach. There she worked in the hosiery section of Buffum’s department store. In time, her mother married James Walter Lee, a Long Beach firefighter, who became Joyce’s stepfather. While she lived in Long Beach for the rest of her life, Lowell often visited in Laguna, staying with her Aunt Lee.
Lowell was an accomplished dancer, once dancing at the White House restaurant at the behest of her grandmother. She wrote seven romance novels, all unpublished, and belonged to the American Writers Association and continued writing into her 90s.
She married Dale Lowell in 1938 and had two sons, Bruce and Barry. Dale, a Long Beach firefighter and respected union president, involved the couple in local politics. While campaigning for city council in 1975, he suffered a stroke and died. After her husband’s untimely death, Lowell continued with her work on family history and became the archivist of family historical photographs and documents. She has shared her collection, enlightening many aspects of early Laguna history
Survivors are son Barry Lowell and spouse Diane, grandson Ed Lowell and spouse Brenda and their son Nathaniel, granddaughter Rebecca Turnbow and spouse Dalton and their son Wyatt, granddaughter Kathryn Lowell, and granddaughter Andrea Kim and spouse James.
Lowell’s son Bruce and her brother, Courtney, predeceased her.
Ann Christoph is a columnist for the paper.