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Life and Arts

Verdugo Views: Ostrich farms were once popular tourist attractions locally

Ostriches were originally brought to this area as a business venture, but the exotic and unusual flightless birds quickly became a tourist attraction.

The first ostriches arrived in 1883. They were brought here by a man named Charles Sketchley, who hoped to make his fortune by supplying ostrich feathers to the fashion industry, which was then adorning hats and other accessories with the huge plumes.

Before 1883, ostrich feathers had to be shipped to the United States from “the birds’ native continent of Africa,” according to Nathan Masters, of PBS’ “Lost LA.”

In an article posted on the KCET website, Masters added that Sketchley had previously managed ostrich farms in South Africa and hoped to make money by providing a local source for the feathers. The story can be found at https://bit.ly/2SnbPV9.

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“His were not unreasonable dreams,” Masters wrote. “In the 1880s, exceptional ostrich feathers could fetch as much as $5 a piece on the market, while a single mature bird could produce $250 worth of feathers each year.”

The new arrivals attracted the attention of local residents who began visiting Sketchley’s property near Anaheim in great numbers. Seeing a new way to profit from the birds, he instituted a 50-cent admission fee and, two years later, moved his ostriches to a large plot of land near the Los Angeles River owned by Griffith J. Griffith.

I found another online-ostrich-related article, written by Mike Eberts, a mass communications associate professor at Glendale Community College.

On the teaching staff since 1987, Eberts wrote “A Centennial History of Griffith Park” in 1996 and has since created a Griffith Park history project, “an attempt to chronicle the park’s long and remarkable life,” as noted on the website.

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According to Eberts, Griffith had purchased the property with the intent to subdivide it and was already selling lots in the southern portion.

Like other large landowners, Griffith wanted to attract buyers — and ostriches were an exotic way to do it.

“The enormous, small-headed, large-footed flightless birds were a source of wonderment. People marveled at huge ostrich eggs, goo-gooed at downy ostrich chicks, fed and even tried to ride adult ostriches,” Eberts wrote.

Sketchley’s ostriches, situated near the Los Angeles River and east of the present location of the Merry-Go-Round, were soon joined by “an odd assortment of animals: parakeets, buzzard hawks, macaws, cockatoos, owls, monkeys, wildcats, silver-gray foxes, badgers and raccoons,” Eberts added.

The animals, plus a nearby picnic ground and walking trails, offered a great family outing via a purpose-built railroad line from downtown Los Angeles to the ostrich attraction.

When the real estate boom faltered, the rail line closed and, in the spring of 1889, Sketchley took his birds to Northern California. He left no remnant of his ostrich endeavor, but Eberts speculated that Griffith’s memories of the animal-viewing visitors, who picnicked on the grass and walked along the trails, led to what is now Griffith Park.

Other entrepreneurs had already taken note of the ostrich success story.

Edwin Cawston opened an ostrich farm near Norwalk in 1886, according to Masters.

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A few years later, he relocated his farm to South Pasadena. The site he chose, near a rail line running from Los Angeles to Pasadena, was immediately popular.

Cawston’s farm offered ostrich and carriage rides and sold “ostrich feathered hats, boas, capes and fans at the Ostrich Farm store that was connected to the factory,” according to Wikipedia.

Cawston’s farm closed in the mid-1930s; a few remnants of its operation can still be seen in South Pasadena. The last ostrich attraction to close — in 1953 — was the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm in Lincoln Heights.

To the Readers:

Memories of ostrich attractions linger on. Check out the internet for great photos. There’s even a restaurant called “Ostrich Farm” in Echo Park. According to the website theeastsiderla.com the restaurant’s name pays homage to the once-popular attractions, “but has no plans to put that bird on the menu.”

KATHERINE YAMADA can be reached at katherineyamada@gmail.com or by mail at Verdugo Views, c/o Glendale News-Press, 202 W. First St., Second Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Please include your name, address and phone number.


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