by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For 44 years, the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm operated on five acres across Mission Road from Lincoln (formerly Eastlake) Park in the neighborhood founded in 1873 as East Los Angeles but which was later renamed Lincoln Heights. It was generally in the shadow of Cawston’s Ostrich Farm, which was about four miles northeast in South Pasadena, but it was long part of a panoply of places of amusement associated with the area around the park, including the Los Angeles Alligator Farm and Selig (later Luna Park) Zoo.
We’ve evolved considerably over the years in terms of how animals are kept and exhibited, so to see how places like the ostrich farm were advertised, including the use of the birds for stage performances, movie filming and for “adventurous” food, is certainly foreign and anathema to the general thinking today. At the time, however, except for a rare instance of official investigations of maltreatment during rain and cold (see below), the attitudes about animal-raising and display were a world away from modern views.
There was actually a predecessor establishment by the name of the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, established in 1886 by Rancho Los Feliz owner Griffith J. Griffith, who acquired the ranch a year earlier and later donated some 3,000 acres of the property to the City of Los Angeles for the park (much later including the observatory) bearing his name (and who also served time at San Quentin for the shooting and wounding of his wife, Christina Mesmer, at Santa Monica—this occurring before his donation).
The main figure behind this early venture was Dr. Charles J. Sketchley (1852-1916), who was born in England but lived for some time in South Africa, where he became familiar with ostriches. In 1883, Sketchley opened what was said to be the first ostrich farm (established as the Southern California Ostrich Farming Company) in the nation on 640 acres at what is now Buena Park, then considered part of Anaheim in what was still Los Angeles County.
At the end of 1885, just as a direct transcontinental rail link from the east was established and which was crucial to the great Boom of the Eighties that burst forth in greater Los Angeles, Sketchley along with Granville P. Beauchamp and Randolph R. Stracey established a partnership for the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm on 100 acres of the Rancho Los Feliz along the west bank of the Los Angeles River, with Sketchley to have “sole management and control of the ostriches, and the general management and control of the entire property and business.”
A building was constructed for visitors and contained “liquors, wines, cigars and eatables” while “curious foreign and American birds and animals were also purchased and kept about the place for the amusement of visitors.” Stracey, however, was to be the caretaker of the creatures, operate the restaurant, and oversee visitor access and use of the facility. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm Railway was incorporated in July 1886 with banker Isaias W. Hellman as president, Griffith as treasurer and Sketchley as general manager.
A route was selected from New High Street near the Plaza and which looks to have headed northwest around the Elysian Hills and past what became Echo Park and Silver Lake to get to the ranch and the farm. There was later an “Ostrich Farm Branch” of the Los Angeles County Railroad for which a timetable appeared in papers in 1887 with five weekday and six Sunday trains to the farm. Later, the line became part of the short-lived Los Angeles and Pacific line which dissolved in 1889 as the boom turned bust.
As for the farm and the partnership that, too, went belly-up rather quickly and in a very bizarre fashion. In December 1886, Sketchley and Beauchamp sued Stracey over a “Madrasse” woman named Govinda—the term Madrasi related to the Madras region of southern India but as a general pejorative for people from that part of the subcontinent—who was described as having “an extremely unique and uncomely physiognomy. The allegation was that Stracey
has openly, notoriously and scandalously debauched and had illicit intercourse with the female servants and employees of said firm . . . [specifically] on divers and various occasions [Stracey] had sexual intercourse with the said Govinda and maintained a meretricious connection with her on the premises . . . and the said criminal intimacy was well known to the other employes [sic] of the firm . . . [and which] was extensively disseminated and talked about in public, and brought great scandal and reproach on the other members of the said firm, and was detrimental to its business.
Even after Govinda left, it was further claimed that Stracey carried on a liaison with a Mrs. Bidwell, wife of another worker at the establishment, both of whom he recruited from England. This, too, was deemed “notorious in the neighborhood . . . and is calculated to prevent decent and reputable persons from visiting the Ostrich farm, and had brought the copartnership into great scandal and disrepute.”
On top of all this, Stracey was accused of neglecting the birds, going off hunting and leaving the restaurant open to potential robbery, and being “indolent and morose, and abuses the employes,” while also spreading rumors about financial problems with the establishment. Finally, he was said to be “greatly addicted to the use of intoxicating liquors, and has thereby been disqualified from duty a large part of the time.”
Whatever the truth of the allegations, dissolution of the partnership followed and the farm was soon after closed. Sketchley, who married into the well-known Packard family of Santa Barbara, moved north and opened ostrich farms near Red Bluff and Sacramento. It was almost two decades before a new Los Angeles Ostrich Farm was launched by L.H. Hughes, J.E. Sturges and J.W. Kemp, with incorporation taking place in September 1906 and $75,000 in stock issued.
The farm was opened on 20 April 1907 with William Ramsay as president, Hughes as vice-president and Harry H. Mears as secretary and treasurer. The Los Angeles Times of the prior day pointed out that the trio previously operated an ostrich farm at Tempe, Arizona, and 75 birds were transferred from that locale to the new facility. Additionally it was reported that,
A handsome mission-style general building has been erected at the farm, and in this is shown a fine collection of ostrich feather goods and souvenirs of the farm. An extensive factory business will be carried on at this place, giving employment to from forty to fifty people.
While there will be no formal programme for tomorrow, an especial exhibit of feather goods will be made, and the public is invited to inspect the new attraction.
The farm was heavily advertised in the early years, including as part of the Tilton Trolley Trip, launched in early 1908 but which soon failed financially with its owner committing suicide a few years later, that stopped right outside the entrance of both the facility and the park and which offered 100 miles of travel for $1. With regards to ads, it is striking to note that one in late 1908 blatantly broadcast that the farm was “operated by Los Angeles people—Americans, who employ only American labor.” This was likely a far-from-subtle dig at Edwin Cawston, who was from England and likely had people of color working for him—both farms were paired together in the papers for their promotion. There was briefly a separate store to sell feathers and other items at Broadway and 3rd streets in downtown.
Another early endeavor was to sell some ostriches to theatrical promoters for a musical comedy called “The Girl Question” and with star Florence Leslie to be trained to ride one of the birds for the live stage performance—it only ran on Broadway for three weeks in August 1908, however. The ostrich she was to ride was called “Fighting Bob” and was used in subsequent advertisements for the farm. In March 1917, actor Bessie Love, who became a big silent film star, was filming with director Edward Dillon on what was likely A Daughter of the Poor when she was bitten on the foot while astride an ostrich.
Even with the frequent marketing, the Ostrich farm was put up for sale in fall 1912, with the site, buildings, birds and other elements offered for $37,000, though it is not known if a change in ownership took place at that time. Later, Irvin A. Moon, a former merchant and realtor from Colorado, and his wife Mabel, took ownership of the establishment, but the couple sold the farm in October 1923 to former California Assembly member Harry A. Wishard, who left Los Angeles for Sanger, near Fresno, before returning with partner R.H. Bailey. The transaction was an exchange with Moon receiving a 26-acre farm in Sanger.
As mentioned above, there was almost no reporting about conditions at the farm, though, just after New Year 1916, Moon was arrested, as was, A.C. Hanson, the manager at Cawston’s, on a complaint by a humane officer charging them with animal cruelty for leaving ostriches exposed to cold and rain. The officer reported that birds were collapsing or shivering because of the situation, but the 7 January 1916 edition of the Times included a report that Moon, after arraignment by request of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, explained to the police court judge that, in fifteen years of experience with ostriches the outdoor exposure in the winter was nothing new and “introduced corroborative testimony all to the effect the birds were only healthy and happy when living so.” So persuaded, the judge dismissed the charges.
The Moons attempted to tie visitation to the farm with major events and institutions in the region, including, as Mears did with the National Education Association national conference in 1907, promotion for the Elks conference, including a float, in July 1915, entering a Tournament of Roses Parade float that January, sharing ostriches for a Nature Study exhibit at a Los Angeles school in May 1913, and a visit by 60 children of the Maud Booth Home, operated by Volunteers of America that April. In September 1919, they dissolved a corporation to run the establishment and made it a private endeavor until it was sold to Bailey and Wishard. By February 1924, there were about 100 birds, the oldest 36 years of age and “daily exhibitions in riding and driving ostriches,” as one of the featured photos here shows, were given.
Under the latter’s ownership, there was much more media attention paid to the farm, usually with photos of ostriches being plucked of their feathers (ads often specifically invited visitors to come when that was being done), the collie Teddy cuddling with chicks, or those babies being hatched. The farm was part of the Los Angeles County Fair Poultry and Rare Bird Show at the Pomona fairgrounds in 1927. One strange event was an Adventurers’ Club lunch that September where the main course was a 250-pound barbequed ostrich, along with “dishes less extraordinary.” In the late 1920s, attention was drawn to “Cloudburst,” having bronchitis and being treated by staffer John Bybee, described as a doctor (perhaps of veterinary science?). By the early Thirties, Bybee was the operator of the farm and harvesting the feathers was promoted at times.
Perhaps as a result of the Great Depression, the ostrich farm was operated in tandem with the nearby alligator farm, long operated by Francis V. Earnest and which was at Lincoln Heights from 1908 to 1953 when it moved to Buena Park (not far from where the first ostrich farm was located) and lasted for another three decades before closure in 1984. The ostrich farm, though, did not make it nearly that long, as it was shuttered in 1951 and the 75 birds there sold to “a kindly animal dealer” who was said to be exhibiting them.
As was noted at the outset, the raising, treatment and exhibition of animals has progressed significantly since the operation of the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, though there are many who advocate that a great deal more remains to be done. Images like these are a visual record and reminder of the establishments, including alligator and lion farms and private zoos like Selig, that were prominent and popular in late 19th and early 20th century greater Los Angeles.