Cawston’s Ostrich Farm was the largest breeder of ostriches and producer of ostrich plume products in America during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It was renowned across the globe for the quality of its ostrich feathers, and was a beloved tourist destination. Visitors could watch as oranges were fed to the ostriches, or ride on a carriage driven by the flightless birds. Families could have their photographs taken, or pictures painted, of them riding ostriches or surrounded by ostrich chicks. Lush, semi-tropical gardens were filled with colourful plants, and visitors could even relax in a Japanese tea house.
In the second half of the 19th century ostrich
feathers were in high demand by high-class fashion designers in America and
Europe, to the point where they acquired a higher value than gold. They were
used to make fans, hats, military uniforms, and many other garments. California
was the perfect environment in which to raise ostriches, and a number of
entrepreneurs began breeding the enormous birds in the 1880s. There are various
accounts as to how Edward Cawston, a rancher based in Norwalk, first acquired
his ostriches. Some state that he bought them from the Englishman Dr. Arthur
Sketchley, who had imported them in 1886 from Port Natal, South Africa. Other
accounts maintain that Cawston himself smuggled the ostriches out of South
The farm was first located at the Los Feliz Ranch, present-day
Griffith Park, where visitors would arrive via the Ostrich Farm Dummy Railroad
and pay the 25¢ admission charge to spend a gleeful day amongst the birds. In
1896 the farm moved to Lincoln Park, South Pasadena, as the old ranch was too
small for Cawston’s expanding operation. This farm featured large pens for the
birds, a cafeteria, and a gift shop that sold a number of ostrich feather goods.
A factory complex was built to process the ostrich plumes and prepare them for
export. One building was devoted to incubating the ostrich eggs. Fully grown ostriches
were brought into a corral, in which their white plumes were plucked. Each bird
could provide up to 1lb of feathers, and by 1896 Cawston had acquired over
three thousand ostriches. The feathers were then dried and colored, before being
prepared for shipping – Cawston’s received up to sixty thousand orders from
around the world each year.
The farm was sold in 1911, and Cawston returned to his
hometown in England. The First World War had a strong impact on global demand
for ostrich feathers, and the industry had almost entirely fizzled out by the 1930s.
Cawston’s farm closed in 1935, the buildings were demolished, and the remaining
birds were donated to the California Zoological Gardens.