You've probably seen a few hilarious hundred-year-old photos of kids riding ostriches (or maybe driven by South Pasadena's Ostrich Farm business park area)--but what's up with that? Why were ostriches such a thing in Southern California in the late nineteenth century? Thankfully, Nathan Masters over at KCET is here to tell the story: "Ostriches arrived in Southern California in 1883 when an English naturalist named Charles Sketchley opened a farm devoted to the tall, flightless birds near Anaheim, in what is today Buena Park." (Buena Park, incidentally: now home to Knott's Berry Farm.) The farm was actually a fashion thing--there was big trend at the time for "ostrich feathers for muffs, hats, and boas," which normally had to be shipped from Africa (the first flock at Sketchley's farm came in from Cape Town and "nine out of every ten birds that boarded the ship" didn't make it across the ocean). Inadvertently, the ostriches attracted a crowd and within six months, "100 to 150 visitors from across the region were touring his farm each day." Clever Sketchley started charging 50 cents for admission.
In 1885, Sketchley ditched Buena Park "and partnered with Rancho Los Feliz landowner Griffith J. Griffith to open a new ostrich farm on the banks of the Los Angeles River," in what's now Griffith Park--they built the Ostrich Farm Railway "to transport curious sightseers back and forth from downtown Los Angeles." Even at the time, the whole thing was pretty weird; the Chicago Daily Tribune and New York Times both bemusedly covered the farm (wonder if they made cracks about traffic and yoga back then too).
The success begat more ostrich farms and by 1910 there were 10 in Southern California. One of the most popular was Edwin Cawston's, which moved from Norwalk to South Pas in 1895. The Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, next to the California Alligator Farm in Lincoln Heights (a story for another day?), was also a favorite. While the fashion market collapsed, tourists kept ostrich farms going for decades--the LA Ostrich Farm didn't close until 1953.
· An Ornithological Curiosity: When Ostriches Ruled SoCal Tourism [KCET]