Of Pigeons and Polygamy: The Strange Saga of J.Y. Johnson’s Los Angeles Pigeon Farm, 1898-1914

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Greater Los Angeles, generally from the 1890s until the World War II years, had a wide array of animal farms, many of which had a fundamental economic function while also serving as tourist attractions.  Some are better known today than others, whether they be the Cawston’s Ostrich Farm, on the border of South Pasadena and Los Angeles, Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte, or the Selig Zoo next to Lincoln Park.

The former provided ostrich eggs and feathers as the core of the business, but also was a significant draw for locals and out-of-town visitors, while the latter were also very popular as tourist draws while being based on providing animals for the burgeoning film industry.

Yorgason ship manifest 1856
At the top of this excerpt from an 1856 manifest for a ship that brought Mormon immigrants from Liverpool to New York is the Sörensson family, including 8-year old Jens (or Jons), who later morphed into James Y. Johnson, proprietor of the Los Angeles Pigeon Farm.

Today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s holdings are a series of photographs of the Los Angeles Pigeon Farm, a six-acre property on the east bank of the Los Angeles River just north of the confluence with the Arroyo Seco and just off the northeastern tip of Elysian Park in what is now the Cypress Park neighborhood.  From 1898 to 1914, the farm provided squabs for food and droppings for fertilizer.

While there are many images of the farm and the name of its operator, James Y. Johnson, is mentioned in some sources, little has actually been written about him and his enterprise.  So, in addition to the photos, a little background on the remarkable proprietor and something of his operation help to flesh out (!) what we see in the images.

James Yorgason 1880 census Moroni UT
James Yorgason, three of his wives and eight of their children as enumerated at Moroni, Utah in the 1880 federal census.

Jons Sörensson was born in 1847 in Lyngby, Sweden, in the southwestern part of that Scandinavian country, east of Malmö.  At age eight, he and his family, who had just converted to Mormonism, decided to migrate to Zion, or Utah, where the Mormons established their home after years of strife in colonies in the Midwest.  The family traveled to Norway, Denmark and then to England, from where they departed on a ship from Liverpool to New York, arriving in early 1856.

When the family arrived at Keokuk, Iowa, which was the end of the line of the train on which they traveled, they stayed to earn enough money to continue the journey by caravan to Utah in 1857.  Apparently, the family, which settled first in Moroni and then in Fountain Green some 100 miles south of Salt Lake City, and its surname became Yorgason during this time.

Yorgason photo by Titania Find a Grave
James Yorgason Johnson in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, uploaded by “Titania” to Find-a-Grave.

Now known as Jons Yorgason, he served briefly as a private in 1866 with a Utah territorial militia in a war with several Indian tribes in what was known as the Black Hawk War that erupted as Mormons pushed farther south from the original Salt Lake settlement area.

He eventually had six wives in a state of polygamy, which was widely practiced by Mormon men until the practice was formally banned in preparation for Utah statehood in the early 1890s, and they produced twenty-two children, of which ten lived to adulthood.  Yorgason became a farmer and sheep-raised, a dairy owner in Salt Lake City, a bishop in the church at Fountain Green and led two missions (1881-1883 and 1886-1888) to seek more converts in his native Sweden.

Yorgason in Sweden for mission Titania Find a Grave
James Yorgason in Sweden in the 1880s while leading a Mormon mission to his native country.

The controversy of polygamy is what evidently led Yorgason to flee Utah for Los Angeles in the early 1890s as it is said he escaped federal marshals seeking his arrest.  He could not persuade any of his wives to join him and changed his name to James Y. [Yorgason] Johnson.  The only family member to go with him to the City of Angels was a son, John William.  In his later years in Los Angeles, Johnson married Gertrude Wing, who was a Christian Scientist and one of whose daughters was married to the painter of the famous “Dogs Playing Poker” series.

After his arrival in Los Angeles, he worked as a poultry, wood, coal and grain dealer and operated the Los Angeles Poultry Yards on Rio Street, east of the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights between 6th (now Whittier Boulevard) and 7th streets, while he lived near Central Park, later renamed Pershing Square.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Apr_21__1895_ (1)
A blithely idealistic image of how enterprising young women, in their fine clothes, could feed the birds on their pigeon farm, Los Angeles Times, 21 April 1895.

While many sources indicate that Johnson opened his pigeon yard in 1898, the earliest newspaper citation located was from three years after that.  The six-acre tract had an address of Dayton Street, now basically Figueroa Street, at Avenue 20, which is today’s San Fernando Road.  Interstate 5 and the Arroyo Seco Parkway (State Route 110) meet in this area and Riverside Drive crosses the river there, as well.

There were other pigeon farms and enterprises in greater Los Angeles during the end of 19th and into the early 20th century.  In 1895, the “Woman and Home” section of the Los Angeles Times included a lengthy article encouraging enterprising women to raise pigeons, even including an image of well-dressed later Victorian ladies feeding the birds from their fashionable clothing—a notable distortion of reality!  Santa Ana had the El Nido Pigeon Farm located along the Santa Ana River.  A.B. McNeeley had one on Adams Boulevard near Hobart Boulevard in what was becoming a growing residential area, leading neighbors in 1907 to petition city hall for its closure.

Times, 17 May 1911.

Apropos of the McNeeley controversy, the 23 March 1904 edition of the Los Angeles Express referred to the olfactory obstructions to pigeon farm propagation and almost certainly to Johnson’s Los Angeles Pigeon Farm, as it was called, in a humor poem called “Voila, The City of Angels!”  The “dramatic personae” were “an Eastern tourist” and a “native son”:

NATIVE SON—Behold, my friend, before your vision spreads

The City of the Angels, famed afar,

Where frost is not, where rose and poppy bloom,

Where grow the palms, the lilies of Navarre.

Here, my good sir, an earthly paradise

Reveals itself—

EASTERN TOURIST—But what’s that over yon?

Great flocks of birds do meet my wondering eye,

And, if I’m not mistaken, greet my nose—

Smells that are not of lilac or of rose;

What may it mean?

NATIVE SON—Well, that’s a pigeon farm.

A little odoriferous, indeed.

But, really, sir, it does us no great harm.

And it’s a sight to watch the birdies feed . . .

Johnson sold squabs live or freshly killed and what he advertised as “guano” for fertilizer, though, technically, that term refers to the droppings of seabirds, whose fishy diet provides a very potent base.  For example, guano harvested on the west coast of South America revolutionized fertilizer for farming around the time of Johnson’s appropriation of the term.

Express, 21 February 1914.

An early found example of the attraction of the farm for visitors and tourists is a short note from the 9 May 1907 issue of the Los Angeles Herald when it was reported that “the great pigeon farm on Dayton Street will be thrown open to the Shriners” who were having a national convention (a growing phenomenon in our area) in Los Angeles.  It went on to state that “this farm is the greatest in the world” and that Johnson’s enterprise “has 100,000 pigeons, and the flock eats more than three tons of grain daily.”

In September 1908, Johnson incorporated the Los Angeles Pigeon Farm with his son, John William and three other investors, creating $200,000 of capital stock, of which about 15% was subscribed by the quintet of directors.  Despite this attempt to infuse capital and continued advertising and promotion, especially the feeding frenzy that took place about 3 o’clock each afternoon, Johnson tried to sell the place at least twice.

Times, 22 February 1914.

In 1911, he hired a real estate firm to advertise that his establishment, “the only thing of its kind in the world” and with a cash income of $7,000 a year, was up for sale for $40,000.  It was promoted as being “six acres of land in the heart of the city of Los Angeles, with over 125,000 grown pigeons on hand, and a permanent market at your door.”

At the beginning of 1914, Johnson tried to unload the place again, advertising on his own that “the famous pigeon farm of Los Angeles is now for sale.”  He must have sold a bit of the property, which was now said to be five-and-a-half acres but with a smaller inventory of 100,000 birds.  He was asking for $50,000, with 40% in cash and the rest for the real estate.

This Keystone stereoscopic photograph, being with the others below from the museum’s holdings, with a 1903 copyright date, shows the Los Angeles Pigeon Farm.  On the reverse is printed information about the raising of the birds.

Whether Johnson would have found a buyer, especially as the area around the farm was growing rapidly as residential tracts sprung up, is not known, but a natural disaster soon struck.  As recently noted in a post here and through others over the years, occasional powerful winter storms have led to major flooding in greater Los Angeles and one of these took place in February 1914 just weeks after Johnson’s ad.

Both the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco overflowed their banks, taking our railroad trestles, bridges, and houses and other buildings along these watercourses.  Perched on the east bank of the Los Angeles River with the Southern Pacific Railroad line on the other side, the pigeon farm was pummeled and then river banks collapsed, causing coops to tumble into the river and drowning thousands of birds.  Others were said to be unable to fly because of the water and died as they were carried downstream or were buffeted by the elements.

A remarkable “birds’s eye view” of the farm from the tall hills at the edge of Elysian Park

While the Los Angeles Express reported that Johnson told them 100,000 pigeons were either dead or dying or homeless, the Times‘ headline blared “Half-Million Pigeons Drowned or Homeless.”  The paper’s more dramatic accounting referred to “thousands of mother birds, circling wildly in the air” while ‘hundreds of the older pigeons which floated ashore were unable to fly and they and their young became easy prey for the men and boys looking for cheap bird meat.”

The paper added that many birds roosted in trees in the surrounding neighborhoods and in Elysian Park and stated that

the destruction of the pigeon farm was one of the pathetic incidents of the flood.  For years it has been one of the popular show places of the city and has been visited by many thousands of tourists.  The distress of the homeless birds was noted yesterday by thousands of persons who visited the flood scenes along the arroyo.

An accompanying photo shows an intact bridge or trestle crowded with onlookers, while others took in the devastation from the steep hills of the park in the background.

A snapshot from across the Southern Pacific railroad tracks looking west toward the farm.

Devastated by the destruction, Johnson, who blamed Southern Pacific workers adjacent to his property for not assisting him, decided not to rebuild and sold the land to the city.  It is said he bought a 160-acre section in Lancaster and while there stepped on a rusty mail, but, because his wife was a Christian Science practitioner and discouraged medical treatment, gangrene set in with stage two diabetes adding complications.

One of his wives (several sought divorces evidently) sent a son and grandson from Wyoming to take Johnson to a hot springs there in the hopes he would recover.  As his condition worsened, the trio stopped in his former hometown of Fountain Green, where he died in May 1917.  Survived by five wives, ten children, and thirty-seven grandchildren (most from his first wife), Johnson was interred in a private Yorgason family cemetery there.

Another snapshot of the farm with the Elysian Park hills in the background.

Of the cache of photographs in the museum’s collection related to the Los Angeles Pigeon Farm, a selection are shown here.  One is a commercial stereoscopic photo from the nation’s largest producer of these types of images, Keystone View Company, and was copyrighted in 1903.  On the reverse is a description of the farm, discussing the hatching of eggs; the use of the squabs (the newborns) for sale at prices of about $2.50 a dozen wholesale and 50 cents more retail; feeding of cracked corn in winter and wheat in summer; and access to the “fresh water in the Los Angeles River” [there is anything but these days!].  After discussing how the pigeons remain fixed to the farm once raised there, the description concluded noting that feed costs were $550 a month for the 16,000 pigeons at the facility.

There is also an excellent view from the uppermost heights of the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains at Elysian Park looking down on the entirety of site, including the fenced compound in which were the cotes, including structures, but also cotes set out in the yard. Outside the fenced area are some other buildings, sheds, small fenced areas and the main entrance to the north.  The Southern Pacific tracks are at the upper right and the banks of the river at the far left.

This shot looks northwest during feeding time with the Los Angeles River at left and nearby hills in the background.

A trio of snapshots provide great details of the facility, including one from the northeast looking toward the larger structure housing pigeons and the hills and park in the background.  A companion is taken from a yard across the tracks to the east and takes in much of the fenced housing section with the hills off to the west.  Finally, there is one within the yard and showing a man dispensing feed from a wheeled cart.  Birds in the yard and in the air are everywhere, with part of the large structure at the upper right.  At the top left and center is the Los Angeles River looking northwest toward nearby hills.

The last image is a larger cabinet card photograph, taken, it appears, from the bridge seen in the Times photo.  The river is in the foreground and left and most of the compound is captured, including the larger structure and many stacks of cotes on the ground.  From the upper center to the right are tall trees, in front of which would be the tracks and Avenue 20, or San Fernando Road, while the same hills in the preceding image range across the upper part of the photo.  On the reverse is a pencil inscription: “Yorgason Pigeon Farm in Los Angeles / 1908.”

This cabinet card photo, likely from a bridge next to the Elysian Park hills looks northeast at the farm, with the river at the left and the same hills from the above photo in the distance.  On the reverse is the inscription “Yorgason Pigeon Farm in Los Angeles / 1908.”

This latter element was puzzling when acquired over a decade ago, because it was always referred to as the “Los Angeles Pigeon Farm.”  Moreover, a search for “Yorgason” at that period turned up nothing.  We know now, however, that this is because of Yorgason’s name change to J.Y. Johnson after he settled in Los Angeles and it took some time to realize that the middle initial was, of course, for “Yorgason.”

The story of how Jons Sörensson,a young Mormon convert from Sweden became Jons Yorgason in Utah and then turned into polygamist James Yorgason and, finally, James Y. Johnson on the run from federal officials in the City of Angels turned out to be a head-spinner and adds a fascinating dimension to the larger tale of the Los Angeles Pigeon Farm, including its tragic end.

Leave a Reply