Portrait Gallery: Lillie Estabrook Crowell and the Stories Behind the Image

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the course of fifteen years of acquiring many thousands of historic artifacts for the Homestead’s collection, I invariably come across seemingly mundane, everyday objects that have a deeper, richer story or set of stories behind the surface.

This is a main reason why, when asked what I’m looking for when it comes to the museum’s collection, I usually reply, “I don’t know” aside from the general time period (1830-1930) and broad geographical scope (greater Los Angeles, whatever that might mean!) that are fundamental to our interpretive focus.

Today’s artifact in the “Portrait Gallery” series is a good example of what can be learned beyond the subject of the photograph and there are two notable stories that emerge from it.

This circa 1901 portrait of Lille Estabrook Crowell from photographers Hicks & Boothe from the Homestead collection seems like a pretty mundane artifact, but it has at least two notable stories behind it.

The first concerns the Los Angeles photographers, Hicks and Boothe, who took the image.  It was assumed this was a partnership of a male photographers based at a downtown studio in a business building at 911 S. Hill St., the address printed on the matte along with the surname of the proprietors.  A little searching revealed something quite different.

Actually, the duo were sisters, Ada Hicks and Lillie Boothe and were, apparently, the first women to take up professional photography in the city, according to an article in the Los Angeles Herald in November 1901.  The feature noted that the siblings were artists and took to photography with the advent just several years before of the personal camera by Kodak.  This led them to move into more professional endeavors and the opening of their studio in the home the sisters shared with their aged father, Seth A. Mattison.

Seth A. Mattison, a successful life insurance executive, came to Los Angeles just in time for the noted Boom of the Eighties and made a fortune subdividing areas around the new Westlake (now MacArthur) Park.

Mattison, born near Utica, New York in 1818 was one of the early agents in the American life insurance industry and practiced his trade for decades in his hometown, as well as in Albion and Detroit, Michigan; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia, working for several firms, including Aetna and New York Life.  For the latter he was in charge of all the branches of the company throughout the United States.  During several years in the 1860s, he also owned a hotel in Evanston, Illinois.  His fortunes varied widely and wildly.

For example, he was quite successful in Chicago and amassed considerable property, but the great fire of October 1871 destroyed $250,000 of his holdings.  A few years later, unable to pay off debts of just a little over $11,000, he sought a cash payment at a lower amount to settle his bankruptcy.  Yet, he rebounded and was working in Philadelphia for the National Life Insurance Company of Vermont, when he decided to head west.

The 1900 federal census enumerated the 80-year old Mattison as a photographer, but his daughters, Ada Hicks and Lillie Boothe, soon became the first women in Los Angeles to work as professional photographers.

Mattison, married to Sarah Perry, a relative of the Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who forced Japan to open its ports to foreign ships, took his family to Los Angeles in 1886, just as the famed Boom of the Eighties was underway.  He immediately seized the opportunity and joined some partners in acquiring property in a new area of town centered around a new city park, called Westlake.  Mattison had two major subdisions, Nob Hill and West Bonnie Brae, in the district and made a significant fortune during the boom, which collapsed by 1889.

Mattison also continued to work in the insurance industry, but, in his mid-seventies, he decided to retire in 1892.  He was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church and engaged in some philanthropy, including work with the Y.M.C.A.  Notably, however, the 1900 census enumerated Mattison as a photographer, so it looks like he picked up the photo bug and was doing some professional work on this own before his daughters joined in.

This fragment of a feature on Hicks and Boothe in the Los Angeles Herald, 3 November 1901identified the siblings as “the pioneer women photographers” of Los Angeles.

Ada Hicks and Lillie Boothe were both separated from their respective husbands and the latter had a son who lived in the Mattison home on South Hill Street, but their photography studio, which started in the residence and then was managed in a small addition behind the house, did not last long.  The sisters were covered a bit in the local press during 1901, but their father died in 1902.

It does not appear that Hicks or Boothe continued with photography.  Perhaps they realized that it was a highly competitive profession and it was hard to successfully operate in that environment.  Their father, though, left a $300,000 fortune and the sisters were the administrators of the estate.  They were more than comfortable in their later years, with Hicks dying in 1927 and Boothe passing away in 1940.  Even if their endeavor was short-lived, the fact that the siblings were the first women to operate as professional photographers in Los Angeles is certainly noteworthy.

Mattison obit Times 27Feb02.jpg
Seth Marrison died in early 1902, leaving his daughters administrators of a substantial $300,000 fortune.  For unknown reasons, their photography business was short-lived.

Then, there is the subject.  Lillie Estabook Crowell was born in 1855 in Jackson, Pennsylvania, north of Scranton and just south of the New York border.  She married Hiland Crowell, who was two years older and who was born in Westminster, Vermont, along the Connecticut River in the central part of the state adjoining New Hampshire.  The couple first lived in Bernardston, Massachusetts bordering Vermont, where Hiland was a merchant.  There were two children, William (later a chemistry professor at U.C.L.A.) and Daisy.

By 1900, the Crowells migrated to California and lived briefly in Santa Paula, in Ventura County, though they resided for longer in Los Angeles, mostly at a home just southeast of Westlake Park and near the subdivisions started by Seth Mattison.  It is unclear if Lillie Crowell knew Lillie Boothe and Ada Hicks when she had her portrait taken by the pair.

Merchant Hiland Crowell and Lille Estabrook were married in Bernardston, Massachusetts in 1878.

Hiland, who continued as a merchant and also had partnerships in construction companies, and Lillie Crowell established a rooming hotel called the Estabrook (for obvious reasons) at their residence on 810 Beacon Avenue and managed it for many years, though they appeared to have reverted to using the structure only as their home in their later years, with Hiland dying in 1933 and Lillie four years later.  The real interest, though, is in their grandson.

Daisy Crowell dropped out of Stanford University in 1908 and married Fred W. Ross, who worked in newspaper advertising in San Francisco for William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, and then, after the marriage, for the Los Angeles Times.  The couple had two sons, Robert (born in 1915) and Fred, Jr. (born 1910), but divorced when the boys were young.  Fred, Sr. moved to New York and remarried, while Daisy found a job as an appraiser in the Los Angeles County Assessor’s office.

By 1900, the Crowells, who had a son, William and a daughter Daisy, resided near Westlake Park, where they ran a rooming hotel in their house.

With Daisy’s busy schedule, her sons were largely raised in the home of the Crowell grandparents, who were very devout Congregationalists and treated Robert and Fred, Jr. with equal measures of affection and Christian discipline.  When Fred, Jr., however, attended U.C.L.A. in the 1930s, he found himself drawn to the plight of the many Americans suffering in the Great Depression, particularly Mexican migrants and Mexican-Americans.  This was a direct contrast to his mother’s insistence in Fred, Jr.’s younger years that he attend an all-white school.

During the Depression years, Ross worked in the federal Department of Agriculture’s migrant labor camp program at Arvin, in the Central Valley, which was the inspiration of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  Ross was the only of 29 camp leaders to fight against racial segretation in the system.  Then, with the War Relocation Authority, he assisted interned Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in securing jobs and housing.

Fred W. Ross, Jr. (1910-1992), the grandson of Hiland and Lillie Crowell and son of their daughter Daisy, became a highly influential, if low key, labor organizer, starting with the federal government in the 1930s, helping César Chávez found the United Farm Workers in the 1960s, and ending with involvement in challenging U.S. policies in Latin America.  The photo, showing Ross speaking to a UFW meeting in 1968, is from a website (propresobama.org) page promoting Ross for a presidential Medal of Freedom.

By the late 1940s, Fred Ross, Jr. made a name for himself when he recruited parents in Orange County to fight against school segregation leading to the famous Mendez case. He was also among the founders of the first Community Service Organization, which was created in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1947.  There, Ross met and mentored a gifted and charismatic young Latino named César Chávez, who Ross recruited for the CSO.

Later, when Chávez and others founded United Farm Workers, Ross played an important role in the development of the union, though he preferred to stay behind the scenes during his fifteen years with the organization, lasting well into the 1970s.  Later, he worked in the successful gubernatorial campaign of Jerry Brown and, with his son, Fred, organized volunteers to fight American policies in Latin America.  Ross died in 1992 and Chávez always considered him a hero.  A recent effort to nominate Ross for a presidential Medal of Freedom includes a website with excellent information and the above photo of the tireless organizer (click here for more.)

Innocuous objects, like the circa 1901 portrait of Lillie Estabrook Crowell, may have certain surface value for a collection.  A little poking around, though, can sometimes reveal more fascinating and important stories that are not immediately evident.  With Los Angeles’ first women photographers taking the image and with the subject’s grandson becoming a major figure in organizing to better the lives of ethnic minorities in California, this modest photo takes on a much greater significance.

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