Bessie Lounsberry: A Most Remarkable Woman

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Bessie Nell (White) Lounsberry (1886-1972) made many important contributions to the civic life of 1930s-50s Costa Mesa. She compiled the city directory, worked local elections, and served on the Costa Mesa Citizen’s Council, along with other volunteer roles. Her seven-year beautification campaign led to the planting of 1,026 trees. She was honored for her decades of selfless service with the Costa Mesa Historical Society’s second Living Memorial Award in 1973.

Bessie was born in Alpena in the Dakota Territory. She graduated from the Wessington Springs Seminary, then found work as a bank clerk. She soon met Harry C. “Clem” Lounsberry, a newspaperman, and the two married in 1908.

The promises of speculators and virgin land lured the newlyweds south of the Black Hills to the Nebraska border. Their property lay 16 miles from town, with only a dozen people within 5 miles. Perhaps this is where Bessie began to develop her reputation as someone who “likes the great outdoors, sleeping under the stars on a brisk night, or cooking over a campfire.”

Neither of the “sodbusters” had any experience with homesteading. They learned as they went. They grew crops and raised livestock, and built a dam to save themselves the 10-mile trek for water when the creek ran dry. They built their 8×14 cabin when Bessie was pregnant with their daughter, Nell. Bessie gathered corn until the day before she gave birth, then again a week after, and never saw a doctor the entire term, including at birth. She took Nell to be weighed two weeks later, sliding her on a grocery scale at a store three miles away.

The Lounsberrys lived happily on the homestead until 1923. But when neighbors moved to Costa Mesa, they followed. They earned money on the five-month trip by picking fruit and saved it by camping. When they arrived in Newport Beach that winter, young Nell made money selling seashells.

The family would undertake the arduous trip back to the homestead several times, but California became their home. For much of the twenties they wintered in Newport Beach then earned money the rest of the year picking fruit across the state. They settled permanently in Costa Mesa at the end of 1930.

Around the same time, Nell’s seashell hobby became a full-fledged family business: the West Coast Curio Company. Bessie loved it, worked hard at it, and was proud of what would become the largest business of its kind. They sold a variety of curios, from urchins and rattlesnakes to gold-rush relics. Along the way, the Lounsberrys perfected a method for preserving starfish that retained their color. Customers would include Knott’s and Disneyland, and their specimens were displayed as far away as Ohio State University and the Smithsonian.

Meanwhile, Nell married an amateur archeologist and traveled with him across California. Bessie and Clem visited them in gold country. Never one to relax, Bessie soon joined in the hunt for gold, carrying a pan and sluice box.

Life stabilized but didn’t slow down when Nell worked as a reporter and editor for the Globe-Herald and Newport Balboa Press from 1937-1945. The untiring Bessie managed the publications’ circulation and advertising.

In the 1930s Bessie dove into civic work. From 1937-1951 she singlehandedly gathered the names, addresses, and sponsors for the city directory, all without pay. Part yellow pages, part white pages, part community history, the directory provided an invaluable resource for newcomers and old-timers alike.

Bessie also promoted voter registration, worked election precincts, and served on election boards through the 1940s and 50s, including as judge. At one point her district earned a commendation for its 94.07% turnout. Politically Bessie supported the re-elections of Congressman John Phillips and Governor Earl Warren (later the 14th Chief Justice of the United States), and in 1953 she sat on a committee opposing incorporation.

From 1950-57 Bessie led the beautification committee of the Costa Mesa Citizen’s Council. Her scrapbooks, photo albums, and detailed notes record her successes. By the time the city took over in 1957, she had helped plant 1026 trees: Pink Locusts, Brazilian Peppers, Flowering Eucalypti, Jacarandas, and more. Her committee also worked to remove eyesores, paint old houses, and fight against a proposed dump. But by the end of the decade, she was forced to retire due to poor health.

Bessie stayed busy, though, running the curio shop and traveling. Over the years Bessie had joined Nell on trips to San Clemente Island, up and down California, throughout the Southwest, and famously, on a 30,000 mile journey through Mexico — always collecting specimens for the shop. At 76 she and Nell took their second road trip to the Yucatan, British Honduras (Belize), and Guatemala — yet another 10,000 miles. The pair donated 350 garments and 100 lbs. worth of toys, crayons, paper, and thread to the poor they met there.

Bessie died in 1972 at the age of 85. The following year she was honored with a Living Memorial Award by the Costa Mesa Historical Society. In addition to the above accomplishments, she was memorialized for her “foresight in anticipating the present interest in ecology and trees.” Her living symbol, a towering Torrey pine, welcomes visitors daily to Estancia Park’s memorial garden.

After Bessie’s death, Goldie TeWinkle phoned Nell to talk about the old days and the loved ones who had passed away. Goldie called Bessie “the most remarkable woman I have ever known.” Nell added in her diary, “I think so, too.”