Feathering the Nest: A Pair of a Cabinet Card Photos of the South Pasadena (Cawston’s) Ostrich Farm, October 1896

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It’s definitely one of the more unusual success stories in greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Cawston’s Ostrich Farm was both a retailer of ostrich feathers and other products and a very popular tourist attraction at its location, along the western edge of South Pasadena next to the Arroyo Seco and across that water course from the Highland Park and Garvanza neighborhoods of northeast Los Angeles.

While most sources correctly noted that Edwin Cawston opened his farm in 1886, his establishment did not begin at South Pasadena, but had two prior homes in the region for about a decade prior. Cawston was born in May 1866 in Clapham, England, historically in the county of Surrey but now within Greater London, and his father Samuel was a stock broker who died when Cawston was a teenager. Evidently, a substantial bequest allowed the young man to travel widely and it was while he was en route from Niagra Falls to Buffalo in 1884 that he read a magazine article about ostrich raising by the British in South Africa.

The enumeration of the Cawston family at Streatham in the county of Surrey, now part of Greater London, England in the 1871 British census.

Cawston wrote an article in a British magazine stating that he’d visited greater Los Angeles during that excursion across America and that he saw potential for raising the exotic birds in the region because there were already some existing farms, including one established near Anaheim (then still part of Los Angeles County) in 1883. He added that went to South Africa in 1885 and found that there were steep excise taxes on ostrich exports to keep the industry, centered around Cape Town, there, so he went to Durban on the east coast and purchased fifty-two birds and transported them to the United States, arriving at Galveston, Texas with ten of them having died, so the remaining animals were shipped by rail to Los Angeles.

The earliest known mention of him, however, in the Angel City is in the 29 July 1886 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, which reported that he and Charles Fox “leased Washington Gardens for the purpose of converting it into an ostrich farm.” Washington Gardens, between Grand Avenue and Main Street west to east, and Washington Boulevard and 21st Street north to south, had been operating for about a dozen years to that point and went on to be other pleasure grounds, including Chutes Park and New Luna Park. Moreover, the paper stated that Cawston departed the prior day “for North Africa [clearly, it was South Africa], and expects to return early in the coming year with the first shipment of birds for this new enterprise.”

Los Angeles Times, 29 July 1886.

In its 24 August 1890 issue, the Herald reprinted an article from the San Francisco Examiner, which had a reporter speak to Cawston, who relayed that he just sold a trio of birds to a Honolulu doctor interested in raising ostriches in that kingdom and stated, “they are three of the fifty-two birds I bought on the east coast of [South] Africa in 1887” He talked of taking the birds 1,000 miles to Durban to avoid a $500 duty on each and then chartered a bark to Galveston, with voyage considered smooth as he only lost the ten ostriches, instead of the normal loss of half usually experienced. He added that each bird cost $75 to purchase and another $250 each to ship.

This account is further buttressed by the fact that Cawston and Fox advertised in the 3 February 1887 edition of the Los Angeles Times that their refashioned Washington Gardens was then open “under entirely new management” and including a “Horticultural, Botanical and Zoological Display,” including the ostriches for an admission fee of twenty-five cents. The stay at Washington Gardens, however, was brief, about a year, before Cawston, having severed ties with Fox, went on his own in a more rural locale.

Los Angeles Times, 3 February 1887.

In 1873, as the Southern Pacific was building a branch rail line from Florence, south of Los Angeles, to Anaheim, it crossed an area referred to as “North Walk” and owned by Atwood and Gilbert Sproul, with the latter setting up a town as the line was completed through the tract. Four years later, the town of Norwalk was established and it was a little more than a decade later that Cawston moved his ostrich farm to the community.

The 24 March 1888 issue of the Herald reported that Cawston came to Los Angeles from the Norwalk Ostrich Farm and “he reports that in their new quarters (the birds were transferred there from Washington Gardens) the ostriches are doing remarkably well, and th results are answering his most sanguine expectations.” About three dozen new chicks were recently or soon to be hatched and “there are thirty-four birds on the farm now, and there will be a rich harvest of feathers this year.”

Herald, 24 March 1888.

In June, the paper noted that Cawston had one male and two hens which, by use of an incubator, produced eighteen chicks in the season and, before they reached ten weeks of age, he sold them to various buyers for $435. He was hoping to experience similar success in the fall “in addition to which he will have the feathers which will realize $250” yielding something like a $1,000 profit from the three birds in under a year.

In the 1890 piece cited above, the proprietor said “the ostrich industry is fairly well established in this state” and added “I’ve done very well with my forty-two birds” while noting “already I’ve raised and sold 55 birds,” which seventeen of them sent to Phoenix, Arizona. He noted that there were more than 450 ostriches in southern California, with three of his worth $1,000 and feathers from each fetching up to $100 per year.

Herald, 24 August 1890.

Two years later, the Times reported on Cawston’s operation, reporting that, on twenty acres, “ostrich farming has been brought to a practical and profitable basis.” Cawston told the paper that chicks were plucked for their feathers at six months of age and then every seven months after that, with the initial yield bringing $4, but the second taking in $12 and each after the third time fetching $20, so that the annual amount was $35 per bird. The proprietor had forty-nine birds and raised his own feed and did about all of the work on his own.

By 1893, the enterprising farmer sold poultry supplies, including castrating instruments, products to kill lice, drinking fountains for birds, alfalfa and meat cutters and more, while he was also the local agent for two incubator companies and a hatcher. While he maintained the ostrich farm at Norwalk, he also kept a Los Angeles office on Broadway and 1st Street, across from the headquarters of the Times.

Los Angeles Express, 20 September 1893.

In advertisements two years later, Cawston informed the public that there were more than 200 ostriches at his Norwalk establishment, making his farm the biggest in the country. Locals and tourists could take the 9:40 train from the Southern Pacific’s Arcade Depot, which opened in 1888 in Los Angeles and return just under three hours after experiencing the farm for an admission fee of a quarter.

The 7 June 1895 edition of the Times included a letter from him in which he was “very glad to correct a statment made in” that paper two days prior in which he asserted that “every feather raised in California is now purchased by a San Francisco firm who employ between sixty and seventy girls preparing this crop for market, which was mostly on the west coast. There were, however, some sold under the banner of California “produce” including feathers auctioned at London with a 30% premium above prices from South Africa, though there was a demand for millinery goods that were from Paris directly. In all, Cawston concluded, some $20,000 in product was kept in the state.

Herald, 19 May 1896.

Another item of interest was the proprietor’s written statement before the Los Angeles County Humane Society early in 1896, at which meeting the document was read and which averred that “the feathers are not pulled off” the birds, “but are cut away except where they are ripe, and theh they are allowed to fall out.” Cawston issued this affidavit in response to a letter from a women hailing from Richmond, Virginia, who was concerned that the ostriches were treated cruelly.

In its 17 March 1896 edition, the Times reported that

Few people realize how important the ostrich industry should be to California, considering that $2,000,000 worth of feathers are imported annually. Edwin Cawston, proprietor of the Norwalk ostrich farm, has shown conclusively that the birds can be raised successfully in this country. On his ranch there are 150 native birds, and several pairs are now sitting on their eggs, and Mr. Cawston expects at least 100 chicks this year.

Adding that this was the first ostrich farm in the country (though we saw that there precursors, short-lived thought they may have been) and the biggest, the paper concluded that “the feathers produced are equal, and in some respects, superior to the imported article.” Several weeks later, the paper publicized a rare situation in which a mother abandoned sitting on her eggs, evidently as a result of a tiff with the father, so Cawston was forced to use an incubator to hatch the chicks.

Herald, 5 October 1896.

By mid-May, Cawston began advertising for the renting, with an option to buy, about ten acres of land between Los Angeles and Pasadena “for [a] branch of the Norwalk Ostrich Farm” and it was vital that such a tract be within a quarter mile of the electric car line servicing the two cities. Clearly, he was mindful of the growing tourist trade in both places, with Pasadena being the winter destination of many well-to-do folks from the colder parts of the country.

A few days later, the Herald observed that “the Norwalk ostrich farm is to be moved to a sightly location between Los Angeles and Pasadena, on the line of the electric railway. Adding that he had 200 birds, the paper concluded that “it is evident as a result of Mr. Cawston’s work that ostrich farming in Southern California can be made highly profitable if pursued with intelligence.”

Times, 13 October 1896.

In mid-July, the Times published in some detail about “Stampeded Ostriches” who were being taken by wagon from Norwalk to Ballona, on the coast south of Santa Monica, when the horses became scared and began to run wildly, leading to the cargo spilling out of the wagon and escaping. All ten birds were eventually captured, with some posing more problems than others. The article ended by reporting “the land on the electric car line between Los Angeles and Pasadena, known as Lincoln Park, has been purchased and wil be opened about September 1 as a show farm in conection with the Norwalk Ostrich Farm” and where visitors would be able to see the creatures more closely.

There was the expected delay in opening, but Cawston and his partner Thomas A. Cockburn were able to launch operations at South Pasadena, which was initially expected to house about sixty of the ostriches along with three broods of chicks, on the 17th. Meantime, Cawston and Cockburn hired John and Robert Best to take cabinet card photographs of their new operation, but, even better, the reverses of the mounts had printed information about the “South Pasadena Ostrich Farm,” dated 15 October.

Herald, 17 October 1896.

The essay began by noting that “this farm has been established by Messrs. Cawston & Cockburn, as a branch of the celebrated Norwalk Ostrich Farm, for the easy access of visitors and for advertising and selling the Californian ostrich feathers.” It was aserted that these birds were of better quality than those in South Africa, with “fifty of finest specimens of the Californian Ostrich” housed at the new location, with ages ranging from a few weeks to ten years.

The statement continued that:

It is now some twelve years since Mr. Cawston (the present proprietor of the Norwalk farm) brought over, in a sailing ship from South Africa, forty-two ostriches, taking over three months on the voyage. Since that time he has raised over three hundred birds and is increasing his “troop” at the rate of about one hundred chicks yearly. When it is considered that the importations of feathers into the United States reach the large sum of $3,000,000 annually, one realizes the practically unlimited market for the local product.

Details on the birds was also provided, including that a mature adult, from four years onward, stood almost eight feet tall and weighed about 275 pounds and that hens laid between a dozen and fifteen eggs in nests comprising holes dug in the ground. Chicks were fed on alfalfa for quick growth and adults, which could live generally to about 70 years, had a diet of alfalfa and sugar beets (this latter raised extensively in Chino, Oxnard, and the Paramount area close to Norwalk for both refined sugar and other uses.)

It was added that “the feathers are plucked every nine months . . . and sold to A. Rubin & Co., of San Francisco, the leading manufacturers on the coast,” with prices of $5-10 per pound. The essay ended with the admonition that “the industry of ostrich farming is possibly the most interesting and peculiar to the general public, and no tourist shoud consider his trip complete until he has paid at least one visit to the South Pasadena farm.” An excellent souvenir would be a feather boa or a group of tips and ease of access was shown by the fact that street cars passed by the farm each quarter of an hour.

After fifteen years at South Pasadena, during which time the Norwalk facility was shuttered and a new one opened at San Jacinto, near Hemet, Cawston was able to feather his nest with a windfall, when, in 1911, he sold the enterprise to local bankers for $1.25 million. While the farm continued to bear his name for almost another quarter century before it was shuttered, Cawston took his princely sum and returned to his native England, where he died in 1920.

We have other artifacts in the collection related to the farm, including photographs, pamphlets, and even a box with feathers, so we’ll share some of those with more information in future posts, so be sure to look for those if more of the story interests you. Meanwhile, here is one good source of information on Cawston’s operation.

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