Long before the ostentation of Arcadia’s noisy peacocks gained infamy and the pandemonium of parrots squawked their way through Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley, there was a bird of another feather that had tourists flocking to South Pasadena: ostriches. The ungainly, flightless birds were once like the goose that laid golden eggs, but it was feathers that made them valuable.
The enterprising Edwin Cawston opened the farm in 1886 near Norwalk, by importing 50 ostriches from South Africa. The birds made their way by boat to Texas and then came to the Los Angeles area by train. Only 18 survived. Yet, eventually the farm’s feathered friends numbered over 100 and the farm moved to South Pasadena in 1895. The whole enterprise might seem like madness today, but during the late 19th century wings, breasts and whole birds (small ones) were popular flourishes to hats. Ostrich feather plumes were in such high demand that ostrich farms were lucrative businesses in South Africa.
According to KCET, a single bird could produce $250 in feathers in one year. English naturalist Charles Sketchley opened Southern California’s first farm in 1883 in Los Angeles but closed in 1889. Cawston, on the other hand, was so successful that he used his South Pasadena location, which was conveniently located along the Pacific Electric interurban railway, for tourism. At the Pasadena farm, tourists could pay to ride in carriages drawn by an ostrich or the braver ones could actually ride one bareback. The gift shop sold feather boas and other ostrich feather souvenirs. Cawston had another location in Perris for breeding.
The market for ostrich plumes plummeted in the 1910s, but the tourist trade kept Cawston’s going until 1934. This type of amusement farm was doomed anyway because in 1954 Disneyland opened in Anaheim. Orange County — once the ostrich capital of the nation during the ostrich feather heyday, according to the OC Weekly — was the site of an ostrich farm revival, according to a 1994 LA Times article about an ostrich farmer who thought they were the protein of the future, but that farm has vanished.
One used to be able to get an ostrich burger at Jake’s of Pasadena in Old Pas, but Jake’s closed in 2015. Fuddruckers also used to offer an ostrich burger, but the Pasadena location closed, too, although you might be able to get ostrich at some Fuddruckers (Fuddruckers Exotic Burgers) but that depends upon the location. If you gander a taste of the feathered flightless fowl that formerly made its home in South Pasadena, you can try Harmony Farms (harmonyfarmsca.com) in La Crescenta (2824 Foothill Blvd., 818/248-3068). The closest farm with herds of these birds is OstrichlandUSA (ostrichlandusa.com), near Solvang. No ostrich rides (bareback or otherwise) are available, but you can get some ostrich jerky, emu eggs and feather dusters,
You can still visit the location of the South Pasadena farm, but while the outside has mostly been preserved, the animals inside have changed to humans. The site of the historic Cawston Ostrich Farm (1010 Sycamore Ave.) was redeveloped in 2006 into 53 live/work loft condos, fittingly named Ostrich Farm Lofts. The ostriches may be gone, but one can still celebrate Pasadena and its unique history by dressing up in one’s finery and flapping one’s wings while dancing like no one’s looking. Happy Birthday, Pasadena.