New Gallery Exhibit on Greater Los Angeles Animal Farms, 1880s-1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Based on material used for some of our festival events, my colleagues in our public programs and collections areas have installed an excellent exhibit in the Homestead Museum Gallery about the proliferation of animal farms in greater Los Angeles from the 1880s through the 1920s.



In the days before local professional zoos, these attractions not only catered to tourists, who gawked and marveled at exotic animals, but usually had commercial applications, as well.  The Cawston Ostrich Farm, long headquatered on the border of South Pasadena and Los Angeles sold feathers, for example, and Gay’s Lion Farm on Valley Boulevard in El Monte rented out animals for the burgeoning movie industry.


The display uses many historic artifacts from the Homestead’s collection to talk about the variety of enterprises found in the region.  The California Alligator Farm opened in 1907 at what was still East Los Angeles, soon renamed Lincoln Heights and adjacent to the namesake park in that community.


The gators splashed in shallow ponds, slid down slides and even gave short rides to visitors who sat on their backs—this latter an activity that would, of course, be unthinkable to the state’s OSHA department!  The farm left in the early Fifties for the booming suburb of Buena Park, near Knott’s Berry Farm, where it operated for about three decades.  I well remember the farm in the days of my youth.


Cawston’s Ostrich Farm was the most famous of several that operated in the region.  The first opened near Buena Park in the early 1880s before relocating after a couple of years (in a reverse direction from the alligator farm) to what later became Griffith Park before closing by the end of the decade.


In 1886, Edwin Cawston opened his farm in Norwalk, moving within a decade to the South Pasadena location at the border with Los Angeles.  His was easily the most famous of the ostrich establishments and sold a variety of ostrich related products (the Homestead has a complete box of feathers from the early part of the century) until its closure during the Great Depression.  There was also the popular Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, which opened in 1906 near the alligator farm at Lincoln Heights and which lasted longer than its counterparts, staying in business until the early 1950s.


Charles and Muriel Gay operated their well-known lion farm not far from the Homestead for about two decades from the mid-1920s to the World War II years.  He was with a French circus in London when he met her and they came to California with the circus during the First World War.  Their first lion-raising enterprise was near Westlake (renamed MacArthur) Park by the end of that decade and they were there a few years before the move to El Monte.


The Gays not only hosted large number of tourists, but also rented out their trained lions to the film industry, including those who were the roaring mascots of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios and “Numa” who had a major role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 The Circus and appeared in many other films.


A lion was provided as a mascot for the El Monte High Lions football games and, naturally, Lions Club meetings were popular at the farm.  About a decade after its closure, the lion farm site was paved over by the construction of Interstate 10, a hallmark of suburbanization reaching the area.


Our exhibit covers these major examples and provides plenty of information; cool artifacts to view; a place to take a photo in front of a historic image of a woman sitting on an alligator; a spot to leave comments on Post-It notes about how animal care might change in the future; an activity table featuring the construction of a paper lantern slide depicting animals; and children’s books relating to animals.


The exhibit will be in the Gallery for the next several months, so come down and check it out and enjoy the hard work my colleagues put into the display!

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