by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Earlier this year, my colleague Isis Quan gave an in-depth presentation on animal farms that proliferated in greater Los Angeles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while posts on this blog have discussed such examples as Cawston’s Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena and Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte.
There is clearly a much different perspective and view about such operations today, but for decades these places were wildly popular to visitors, regularly patronized by movie studios renting animals for films, and, in some cases, suppliers of products for markets in ostrich feathers, alligator skins and the like.
This post features some photographs and a pair of pamphlets from the Homestead’s collection related to the California Alligator Farm, which operated in Los Angeles from about 1908 to 1953 and then in Buena Park in Orange County for another three decades afterward. Founded by Francis V. Earnest, the farm was about on the same level of popularity as the facilities owned by Edwin Cawston and Charles Gay.
According to an obituary for Earnest, he opened his enterprise in February 1906 along with Hubert “Alligator Joe” Campbell, who was the first alligator farmer in the United States and was in Arkansas at that time before ending his partnership with Earnest and moving to Jacksonville, Florida.
The Los Angeles farm (there was also one at Venice in 1906 and another there as late as 1916) was situated near Eastlake Park in what was then called East Los Angeles—in the late 1910s the community became Lincoln Heights and the park also renamed Lincoln. An early reference from the Long Beach Telegram of 23 June 1908 reported that
one thousand alligators, ranging from the length of a lead pencil to monsters that could crush a man in their jaws, arrived in Los Angeles a few days ago from the southwestern part of Louisiana and were landed loose in a new gator farm in east Los Angeles . . . The increasing demand for alligator leather, which is converted into pocketbooks and handbags, makes the consignment of saurians valuable and accounts for the new industry started in Los Angeles.
Soon, Earnest was exhibiting alligator-skin products at the state fair and a local “Made in California” exhibit, so it was abundantly clear he was motivated principally from the commercial profit potential of products from his animals as well as the value of tourism at this new farm.
By 1910, he had over 1,000 animals and advertised “special exhibitions” and Sunday public feedings of meat and fish. The following summer, the Los Angeles Times announced the arrival of another 500 alligators, along with 1,500 eggs and 200 bullfrogs, and an accompanying cartoon made light of the effects of the “weird consignment” on Southern Pacific railroad employees.
In August 1912, the Van Nuys News ran a brief article about how one could grow rich with an alligator farm, stating that the demand was significant, regular and growing but with limited supply and no competition, prices were high. It added that farmers in Central America, México, Florida and Louisiana did well and pointed out that, not only were the skins, fetching 50 cents to $3 each based on size and quality, used extensively, but the bones and teeth were made into cuff links, knives and whistles. The real money, though, was for babies sold to museums and as pets and it reported that the State of Florida reaped a million dollars a year in this way.
In addition to Earnest’s operation, the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm was located adjacent (and he wound up buying the latter by 1923) and, in 1913, film studio owner William Selig, bought 35 acres nearby, for a zoo that was used for his motion picture business and that of other studios, while also being a popular attraction (later, it was the Luna Park Zoo.) When Charles Gay opened his lion farm, its original location was close to the alligator farm.
In March 1915, a film promoting the Golden State and simply titled “California” was shown at the Mozart Theatre in Los Angeles, with the alligator farm one of the many featured locales and, it is notable that, as the Los Angeles Record of the 13th, had a short notice about the movie, there were large ads on the same page for the Al G. Barnes Circus and the Bostock Wild Animal Show—showing the extent to which animal displays were ingrained in American life.
By the Roaring Twenties, and after some difficulties during the World War I years, including a city-enforced closure as the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 raged, the alligator farm did well and it was frequently covered in the press, almost always in a positive light and often with photos of the “brutes” to attract the attention of readers.
It was notable that the Times of New Year’s Day 1924 claimed that
Besides the ostrich farms, alligator farms and reptile gardens, there are many zoos in Southern California containing animals not only rare, but the largest collection of trained animals in the world. These are used in motion pictures, and just as the pictures bring joy and education to children the world over, the local zoos bring the same to children of the city and its environs.
About two months later, the Los Angeles Express stated that “in a ‘new day’ of sight-seeing in Los Angeles we visit the big alligator farm opposite Lincoln park” where “one thousand of those queer and always interesting animals are on exhibit.” Among these were the nests and egg incubators “all in a setting formed by the beautiful park and lake, [and] are most attractive to the visitors.” More novelty was provided by the sight of alligators “shooting the chutes,” that is, riding slides into ponds, as well as those purportedly being hypnotized and others being caught as in the wild.
In, a 1926 set of photos from the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News reported that there was a “novel hospital” for the care of the creatures after they battled each other and often came away from conflicts with missing legs or tails. There was even a claim that one of the alligators, known as Okeechobee, was 500 years old, but the oldest known living example today is 87 (this is Muja, an American alligator who resides at the Belgrade Zoo in Serbia.)
In mid-1925, the Whittier News noted, with an accompanying photo, the Earnest had some 2,000 creatures at the farm and that, in his 18 years of operation, had more than double that number born on the property. While it was added that some died on site, “most of them have been sold to curious tourists as pets or to carnival companies and sideshows.” Babies fetched $3.50, while the largest adults cost as much as $300, and “the more vicious ones are often loaned to movie companies in Hollywood.”
In May 1926, the Lincoln Heights Bulletin observed that the alligator and ostrich farms owned by Earnest, with his brother, wife and son-in-law among the employees, “are visited by thousands of people annually, who come from all parts of the world.” It was stated that there were hundreds of animas at the alligator farm, ranging in age from a few days to 175 years, and “the guide informed us that during the winter months they never eat, and that they eat very little during the summer.”
The 3 July 1925 edition of the Express had a question in the popular column of Estelle Lawton Lindsay, in which she was asked by a reader who visited an alligator farm (almost certainly Earnest’s) and was concerned by seeing “some poor creatures who were awfully mutilated” and wondered if their suffering was such that they should be put out of their misery.
Lindsay, however, replied that she, too, was horrified by those sights, but asked her own question of “what can anybody do?” She added “the things fight ferociously” and said she’d investigated the matter and found that “if alligators have any special feeling they hive no sign of it.” Finally, she offered, the only way to avoid the fighting was to muzzle the animals “and that would be some job.”
As for accidents involving humans, they were rarely reported (which did not mean there weren’t other instances, of course.) In May 1910, 19-year old Alonzo “Tex” Hartzel, a trainer at the farm was bit by Evangeline, the largest of the gators, as a photo session was underway, as well as being bitten by a rattlesnake used as part of public demonstrations so that his arm was swollen to four times its normal size, though Hartzel returned to work that day.
In July 1925, Earnest’s namesake son, who was seven years old (and frequently performed on marimba, sang and told stories on local radio), was with his uncle John Earnest during feeding time when a gator rose up and grabbed his hand (perhaps thinking he had food to offer). John Earnest quickly leapt over and gouged the animal in the eye before it could do further damage, but the youngster escaped with an injury that would leave a scar, but it could have been far worse.
A few months later, on the first of September, John Earnest was conducting some tree trimming but slipped and fell into one of the concrete pools “in which a score of the monsters were swimming.” Earnest was knocked unconscious when he hit the hard surfacing and attendants raced to extricate him as “they beat off the alligators and succeeded in pulling him to safety,” thereby avoiding another potential disaster.
The California Alligator Farm continue operation through the Great Depression and World War II years and, in April 1946, Francis Earnest died at age 71. His obituary in the Lincoln Heights Bulletin noted that he was born in a log cabin in Indiana, though nothing was said of his early years (he was a day laborer in Pueblo, Colorado at the turn of the century before migrating to Los Angeles). It was added that “as a young man he always had a desire to see an alligator” which led him to establish the farm “as he felt others might like to see alligators.”
The family carried on with the business including with its move to Orange County and until its closure in 1984 after more than 75 years. The photos shown here are just a sample of what is in the Museum’s holdings, while the pamphlets are from pre-1917 and during the 1920s and have the same basic wording, but with a different design and photographs.