Saturday, November 9, 2013

Forget Turducken; Have Ostrich this Thanksgiving!

Ah, me. Don't we miss the quaint and lovely ostrich ostrich farms of Old Los Angeles?

You know about them. right?


While we all wax nostalgic over Red Cars, Bullocks and their Tea Rooms, and the dirt roads that are now freeways, no one sits back and sighs over the lost ostrich farms of LA. Notice that?

I'm guessing--not having farmed anything, including big birds, I don't really know--that no one could really miss the honking, the dust, the giant droppings, and anything else you can think of that would make living downwind of an ostrich farm less than idyllic.

Los Angeles' history with ostrich farms goes back well over a century. In the LA Library's photo collection I found pictures of the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, which was in business at least from 1892 to 1941; it's address was 3609 N. Mission--at Lincoln Park.

But the Lincoln Park farm was not unique!

A farm started in Anaheim in 1882 was the first, and spawned a second farm (same owner) at Los Feliz Rancho, soon connected by rail line to 2nd Street and Beaudry in LA. These were  followed by Al Cawston's Ostrich Farm  in South Pasadena (which existed from 1886 through 1935, and which was reputed to be the largest in the country when Edwin Cawston sold it to a syndicate of bankers in 1911). Then there was the Wilshire Ostrich Farm on Grand and 12th and an Ostrich Park Farm in Glendale in the 1880s. Briefly, there was one at 2nd Street Park, and one in Norwalk and even Santa Monica. We were awash in ostriches.

Why so many? Well, ostrich feathers were big at the end of the 19th century, especially in Europe. In fact, after Mr. Cawston bought fifty ostriches from South Africa and brought them to California, he sold plumes plucked from the birds every six or seven months for two or three dollars apiece. Each bird could supply 25-30 feathers. That was big money!

Plumes were the main product of the farms, but vast numbers of tourists also paid to have their pictures taken in ostrich-drawn carriages. The petite wagons held one person and were hitched up to two yoked ostriches . . . there's gotta be a good pun in there somewhere. I must be tired.

We were gonna corner the ostrich plume market!

Cawston likely provided the ostriches for the other farms that spread across the Southern United States. The site of his farm, btw, is now home to the Ostrich Farm Lofts, carved and modeled out of brick buildings that (I think) were part of the original farm.

One fanciful 1914 article claimed that "The boy is now alive who will behold the wharves of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego some day laden down with bales of ostrich feather for import to foreign lands, while through the Panama Canal en route to New York will go quantities for distribution to the crowded centers of the distant East. The ostrich is a first-class multiplier and greatly assisted by the various American ostrich farmers by the scientific methods adopted for the incubation of the eggs. This means an immense American ostrich population in the distant future and consequently much to the glory, honor and profit of the people of California."

Um, yeah. Sure, you bet.

But as these pictures demonstrate, not all visitors came to ooh and aww over the plumage, or to sit in the cute little cart and send a postcard to Aunt Gertrude. Some visitors came to eat ostrich. Did they pick their bird the way we pick lobsters at the pier? Ugh!

If ostriches weren't enough to draw you into Lincoln Heights--and I just can't imagine such a case--there was also an Alligator Farm there, built in 1906 and owned by the same folks as the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm.

It was right next door, which makes one wonder whether any ostriches ended up as 'gator snacks.

An excellent site for more information and pictures is the History of Lincoln Heights website. That's where I learned that the bungalows and parking lot that sit there today are actually residential units for those in treatment for chemical dependency. One ancient pepper tree (a non-native species, ironically--just like the birds) is all that remains of the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm.

The first picture above is from our library's photo collection and was taken at the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm across the street from Lincoln Park in 1929.

The other photos come from a blog post of the California Historical Society, and were digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library. They're part of the Title Insurance and Trust and the C.C. Pierce Photography Collection.

They are also labeled Lincoln Park though undated--but I'd put them at around 1929.

But really, check out the Lincoln Heights History website, and its ostrich page. They have text from the old brochures ("Take the Yellow Car marked Lincoln Park and get off at the farm. Fare 5 cents")and postcards of folks in the little carriages from all over the world.

If you want to see live ostriches, you'll probably have to drive north to Solvang.


Larry Strawther said...

Just doing some research on this yesterday. The first farm was actually opened in 1883 in Anaheim by C.J. Sketchley, - an Englishman by way of South Africa where he was involved in ostrich farms. In 1881-82, he formed the California Ostrich Co in 1881-82, then purchased 33 ostriches then on display in San Francisco. The first farm was successful enough that so Col. Griffith lured him to open a farm on his Los Feliz Rancho (now in Griffith Park) to lure prospective buyers. Sketchley or two fellow Englishmen to invest and he returned to South Africa and brought more birds back in 1886 and set up on the Los Feliz rancho an ostrich farm, some elaborate gardens, an exotic aviary -- and a railroad, but this operation busted even before the real estate bubble burst. There were newspaper stories involving a sex-obsessed partner, Govinda, a quite unattractive female "Hindoo," and by early 1888, the company was dsissolved. Sketchley took his sharen of the ostriches to Red Bluff, Granville Beauchamp took his share to Santa Monica. Others were sold back to the farm in Anaheim, now run by another Englishman, Edwin Atherton of Fullerton, but some were also sold to ranchers in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica.
Edwin Cawston, a 20-year old Englishman, entered the scene in late 1886 and early 1887 in partnership with E.P. Hoyle, Sketchley's successor Anaheim superintendent, and opened an "ostrich exhibit" at the new Washington Gardens amusement zone (Main St, just south of the 10), and very soon after a breeding ranch in Norwalk. In the mid 1890's, he transferred all his operations to his famous ranch n South Pasadena. In 1904 he opened another breeding farm in La Habra, and by 1911 when Cawston sold his operations, the breeding farm had been moved to Perris.
Cawston's principle talent lied in promotion, and the truth wasn't always a requirement, just an outline with great flexibility. His early correspondence acknowledges Sketchley's efforts, but by 1906 Cawston's stories and brochures have him starting the SoCal ostrich industry.

Vickey Kall said...

Larry, that is great information--thank you! I wonder if anyone has ever pulled this together and done an article for, say, California History?