An Ornithological Curiosity: When Ostriches Ruled SoCal Tourism

Feeding time at Southern California's ostrich farms was often a highlight. Vistiors enjoyed watching whole oranges slide down the birds' gullets. Postcard courtesy of the David Boule Collection.

Today, thrill rides, special-effects shows, and elaborate recreations of fantastical worlds draw tourists to theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios. But in the late nineteenth century, some of Southern California's first amusement parks offered visitors up-close encounters with an ornithological curiosity: the ostrich.

Ostriches arrived in Southern California in 1883 when an English naturalist named Charles Sketchley opened a farm devoted to the tall, flightless birds near Anaheim, in what is today Buena Park. Sketchley's investors, who included developer Gaylord Wilshire (of Wilshire Boulevard fame), organized as the California Ostrich Farming Company and contributed $80,000 to the enterprise.

The farm -- the first of its kind in the U.S. -- sought to capitalize on a trend in women's fashion that favored ostrich feathers for muffs, hats, and boas. Until 1883, only ostrich feathers shipped at great cost from the birds' native continent of Africa were available for these luxury accessories. Sketchley, who had previous experience managing ostrich farms in South Africa, envisioned fortunes built upon locally sourced ostrich feathers.

It was not an unreasonable business proposition; in the 1880s, exceptional ostrich feathers could fetch as much as five dollars a piece on the market, while a single mature bird could produce $250 worth of feathers each year.

The farm's first flock, numbering 22 birds, arrived on March 22, 1883. They were a hardy bunch; the pioneer ostriches were the survivors of a perilous voyage from Cape Town that claimed nine out of every ten birds that boarded the ship.

Though Sketchley had brought the birds to Southern California for their plumage, they soon attracted the interest of local sightseers who were transfixed by the sight of the flock. By October, 100 to 150 visitors from across the region were touring his farm each day. Though tourism presented Sketchley with operational challenges -- some tried to pluck feathers themselves, and the sight of a single dog could terrify the flock for hours -- the farmer soon grasped the opportunity for profit and began charging 50 cents for admission.

In 1885, Sketchley left the Anaheim farm and partnered with Rancho Los Feliz landowner Griffith J. Griffith to open a new ostrich farm on the banks of the Los Angeles River, in what is today Griffith Park. Sketchley and Griffith built the narrow-gauge Ostrich Farm Railway to transport curious sightseers back and forth from downtown Los Angeles.

Sketchley's ostrich farm in Rancho Los Feliz, circa 1886. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

A souvenir booklet from the Cawston Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena. Courtesy of the Autry National Center (object ID 2009.71.7).

Souvenir Catalog and Feather Price List from the Cawston Ostrich Farm. Courtesy of the David Klappholz Collection.

Souvenir postcard from the Cawston Ostrich Farm. Courtesy of the David Klappholz Collection

Ostriches on a farm near Santa Monica. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

A Los Angeles-area ostrich farm, probably the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm in present-day Lincoln Heights. Courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center (object ID LS.12989).

Hatchlings were a popular attraction at Southern California's ostrich farms. Postcard courtesy of the LA History Archive, the Studio for Southern California History.

Sketchley's enterprise attracted national attention. The New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, and Scientific American all ran reports from awestruck correspondents who seemed to delight in describing the high-strung and ungainly birds.

"To those who are unfamiliar with the appearance of an ostrich, it may be described as resembling nothing more than a large gas pipe set on tall and muscular legs," wrote a correspondent for the Tribune.

"An ostrich is apparently the most ill-tempered bird in existence. They never acquire a fondness for anyone," wrote the New York Times. "They are always on the lookout to kick someone, and if the kick has the intended effect it is pretty sure to be fatal."

Harvesting the birds' economic value, then, was a delicate process.

"A curious fact about the bird is that it never kicks unless it can see its adversary," explained the Tribune. "The ostrich men have utilized this peculiarity, and before plucking draw a long stocking down the neck of the birds, completely blindfolding him."

The margin for error was thin: "One of the keepers overlooked a hole in the stocking recently and had a narrow escape," the Tribune's correspondent added.

Though the plucking was difficult, ostrich farms prospered in Southern California, aided by region's climate and booming tourism trade. By 1910, Southern California boasted ten ostrich farms.

Among the most visited was Edwin Cawston's farm, which opened near Norwalk in 1886 and in 1895 relocated to South Pasadena. Located conveniently along a Pacific Electric interurban rail line, the farm attracted so many visitors that Cawston eventually moved his breeding operations to Perris, reserving his South Pasadena location exclusively for tourism.

Also popular was the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, which opened in 1906 next to the California Alligator Farm in East Los Angeles (since renamed Lincoln Heights).

In the 1910s, the market for ostrich plumes collapsed, but tourists continued to flock to the farms well into the twentieth century. Visitors rode in ostrich-drawn carriages and wagons or even, in some cases, rode the birds bareback. One highlight was feeding time, when tourists would gawk at the birds as whole oranges slid down their gullets. Before leaving, many guests stepped into the farms' gift shops, which sold boas and other souvenirs made of ostrich feathers.

Eventually, tourists found new sources of diversion, and the ostrich farms gave way to amusement parks with more elaborate and thrill-seeking themed attractions. The famed Cawston farm in South Pasadena shut its doors in 1934, and the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm -- the last of its kind in Los Angeles -- closed in 1953.

Gift shop receipts augmented the farms' admission fees. Circa 1910 postcard courtesy of the  Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Young Betty Lou Young at the Cawston Ostrich Farm circa 1922. Courtesy of Randy Young.

Advertisement for the Cawston Ostrich Farm, produced in conjunction with the 1910 air meet at Dominguez Field. Courtesy of the 1910 Los Angeles International Aviation Meet Research Collection, California State University Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections.

The Auto Club's first map product, a 1910 tour guide, featured an ad for the Cawston Ostrich Farm. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

The Cawston Ostrich Farm's location along a Pacific Electric line helped to make it a popular destination for day-trippers. Circa 1920 photo courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

A photographer for the Dick Whittington studio captured this scene for the Southern California Fair Association in 1929. This photo was recently digitized as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project, Invisible L.A., at the USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

Read more L.A. as Subject posts here at KCET.org, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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