For the Birds: Orange County Was Once the Ostrich Capital of the Nation

Photo courtesy Anaheim Historical Society

There’s something about central Orange County that attracts people to enter into bizarre enterprises involving animals and tourists. Yes, Walt Disney and his mouse are the most exemplary example, but the city has had a storied history filled with folks capitalizing on animalistic entertainment long before Disneyland took over. (In Anaheim, the Mouse owns you!)

Among the bird-brained business ventures was the county’s ostrich-farm boom of the 1880s and 1890s, which started in Anaheim. In fact, Orange County was once deemed the “ostrich capital of the nation.”

In the 1880s, ostrich feathers were at the height of ladies’ fashion, the giant, billowy feathers often adorning the comically oversized, ornate hats of the day (and the bigger the plume the better, amiright, gals?). At the time, the only source of ostrich feathers for commercial use was South Africa, and they carried hefty price tags after big import taxes. In 1882, a group of enterprising local businessmen got wind that a group of about 50 of the odd birds had been smuggled from South Africa and were in San Francisco. Where one might see big-ass ornery birds, the investors saw dollar signs: $30,000 was raised to bring “the craziest chicken ranch in California” to the southland.

Twenty-two immigrant ostriches arrived via the noon train in spring of the following year to start a new life at the California Ostrich Co. in Anaheim. Intrigued locals flocked to the farm, spending 50 cents to get a good look at the thrilling fowl. The flightless birds reportedly stole and ate jewelry and hat pins that adorned the women in the crowds, which is tit for tat, if you think about it.

Ostriches, objectively, are kinda shit-heads. They certainly are more temperamental than even the foulest-tempered chicken, not to mention taller than your average Joe and far stronger. (Fun fact: Johnny Cash recalls in his inventively titled autobiography Cash: The Autobiography, the time he “was almost killed by an ostrich.” One of the cocks on his own exotic-animal farm in Tennessee was disgruntled after his mate died in a particularly cold winter and assaulted the Man In Black. The pain of the near-fatal attack got Cash re-hooked on painkillers.)

The farmers in Anaheim quickly learned, to their surprise, that the birds don’t like their feathers being plucked. They can also kick like a mule and peck you to death. To combat this, one lucky guy would put a sack over the ostrich’s head and hold it tight while another hapless boob plucked the plumes. The birds’ aggression wasn’t reserved for the pickers, though; they reportedly pecked one another to death, too.

Despite the perils of ostrich farming, four other such farms sprang up in the county, including one in Fullerton and Santa Ana. The California Ostrich Co. sold hatchlings for $450 a pop, and the industry grew across the Southwest, from Anaheim to Arizona.

In 1896, W.A. “Billy” Frantz of Anaheim had the bright idea to begin racing the beasts. He took two relatively tamer birds, named Napoleon and Bonaparte, and trained them to pull a cart. He then took them to the Santa Ana Race Track, where they would give even the ponies a run for their money. From Santa Ana, ostrich racing took flight, and Frantz showed off his running birds at fairs and circuses. (Anyone looking for the thrill of spectating an ostrich race can witness them the weekend after Labor Day every year in the genuine Old West town of Virginia City, where they’ve been running for the past 58 years.)

One day, Napoleon did what ostriches do, and he delivered a near-fatal kick to Frantz during a feeding. Frantz realized this ostrich-wrangling bit was for the birds and sold off his flock and racing team, keeping only two birds. He settled into the nice, respectable life of an orange farmer. At least oranges won’t kill ya, right?

The two remaining ostriches were later found dead, reportedly after choking on oranges. So it goes.

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