Throwback Thursday | Meet Mr. Cawston

In 1896, Edwin Cawston established an ostrich farm in South Pasadena. The rest is history

PHOTO: South Pasadena Public Library | News | Edwin Cawston (1899)

It’s sad but true: community interest in historic places fades over time. Sometimes they are forgotten entirely. The Cawston Ostrich Farm was the largest employer in South Pasadena for over 30 years. And yet, few people today know the purveyors of feather fashion, and world-famous tourist attraction even existed. Those who do, know very little about the man who began his success story here over 120 years ago.

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | Edwin Cawston and his wife at the Cawston Ostrich Farm, South Pasadena (1905)

Edwin Cawston was a tireless world traveler and opportunist. He had a reputation for being a shrewd businessman with a flair for the fantastic. He used his showmanship skills to court investors and help get his unique enterprise off to a good start.

An overseas visit to South Africa in 1892 turned out to be his greatest adventure of all. He went to investigate opportunities in the ostrich feather industry for possible export to America. Shortly after his arrival, Cawston rushed to witness every facet of the business first hand, including capturing ostriches in the wild.

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Unfortunately, the Cape Colony government soon caught wind of his business plans in California and hastily passed a law requiring a $500 duty per ostrich and $125 per egg (a considerable sum back then) to export this magnificent bird to the United States. In a bold move, Edwin Cawston made his famous Midnight Run; leaving South Africa with over 50 male and female ostriches on the eve the protectionist law went into effect.

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection and South Pasadena Public Library | News | Scenes of the Cawston Ostrich Farm, South Pasadena (1896-1931)

The area was mostly pastoral lands when Cawston decided to build his ostrich farm in South Pasadena. But with nearby Pasadena winter tourism at an all-time high, his goal was to attract large numbers of visitors to his farm and gain national attention in the process.

More than one person at the time thought he was crazy for traveling halfway around the world to acquire ostriches and then land them in a sparsely populated region of Southern California. The New York press described his farm as “One of the strangest sights in America.” With press like that Cawston’s risky venture was about to pay off big. In no time at all his Cawston Ostrich Farm was a huge success and regarded as one of Southern California’s most popular tourist attractions.

PHOTO: South Pasadena Public Library | News | Edwin Cawston (1899)

Throwback Thursday is written and produced by Rick Thomas


Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.