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One of Dwight Whiting's Earliest Ideas Lays An Egg

Soon after purchasing the former Rancho Cañada de Los Alisos, El Toro’s founder figured he could extract the "rich" out of ostrich.

If you've ever read one or more of 's books about the history of Saddleback Valley, you'll know he wasn't above poking a bit of gentle fun at El Toro founder .  

For example, in his Old El Toro Reader, Joe writes, “Dwight Whiting had big plans for the development of his ranch. [He] tried a number of experimental crops, but most of them were not very successful. The Whiting Ranch is a good example of a man in search of success.” 

Joe does acknowledge Whiting's success in negotiating for through Saddleback Valley.

But once the tracks had been laid and a depot built, what would be the agricultural means of support for his envisioned community?

SEARCHING FOR THE PERFECT ANGLE

Not long after Whiting purchased his land and made an , Joe says, he "moved into a grand home on a small hill" adjacent .

Next it was time for step two: convincing other folks to join them.

So Whiting decided to hold a great land sale.

But, as Joe adds——an unexpected change in the weather caused the great land sale to meet with a rather chilly reception.

Other ventures would include planting 400 acres of (then considered "the miracle tree"), two trips to England to establish a "," , the (Fruit Farming for Profit in California), and any number of agricultural experiments in hopes of establishing the Saddleback Valley as the olive/walnut/prune/apricot/etc. capital of the world. 

"This was not a man who gave up easily," Joe concludes.

What most folks don't know, however, is that before all of the aforementioned grand schemes, Dwight Whiting was busy hatching an idea he figured would be the answer to feathering his nest. 

GIVING THEM THE STRUTHIO CAMELUS

Not long after Whiting purchased the land now known as Lake Forest, he became one of the major investors of the California Ostrich Farming Co. 

Why? For one excellent reason: The plumage of Africa's exotic "camel-bird" had been, for many years, the ne plus ultra in ladies' fashion. As the 1880s drew to a close, the longest feathers were being used to trim the large, platter-like hats of late Victorian vogue—remember that ?—whereas the shorter feathers were being made into equally popular feather boas

Orange County historian Jim Sleeper gives us a rather rascally account of the "Great Ostrich Boom" in his Third Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities, published in 1982. According to Sleeper, 50 ostriches had been smuggled out of South Africa to Galveston, Texas. "A year later, the 22 survivors found themselves in San Francisco, where a local syndicate acquired the whole flock for $21,000,” wrote Sleeper.

One of the members of this local syndicate, says Sleeper, was our very own Mr. Dwight Whiting.

"Roaring and hissing," Sleeper continues, the ostriches "were hauled in high-board wagons three miles from the Da Corta (later Almond) station to their new 40-acre home. Known as the Los Feliz Ranch, Orange County's pioneer ostrich pen occupied what is roughly today the intersection of Lincoln and Valley View Avenue in Buena Park.

"While better publicized in print than attended in person because of the farm's remoteness, at least one visitor in 1884 reported that the flock was 'now up to 40.'"

By 1886, a former Capetown resident by the name Edward Atherton became part of the venture and moved the ostrich population—now numbering 47—to a 38-acre parcel in the Fullerton foothills, about a mile west of the current location of Cal State University at Fullerton. The move was a success for all concerned, including the "periscopic-looking bipeds" themselves, for the "bellowing mating calls of its inmates could be heard six miles away in Anaheim . . . a sure sign of contentment."

One year later, nine new birds were hatched. And by 1889, the farm's population had increased to 127 birds.  

That was also the year, writes Sleeper, that "adult birds were realizing between $60-$65 per harvest. Four to five 20-inch wing feathers were required for each commercial plume, the choicest black and white ones coming from the males . . . the females produced shorter gray-brown feathers which were washed, curled and dyed for boas."

Which begs the question, since ostriches have been known since time immemorial as—to put it mildly—rather feisty critters, just how was the extraction of feathers accomplished?

"During the barbering process, each ostrich was ushered into a three-cornered pen and a canvas sock placed over its head while the 'plucker' judiciously positioned himself behind. Anyone forgetting that cardinal rule no doubt recalled it in his next life as an ostrich's forward kick is tantamount to that of a mule."

PLUCKED

By April 1891, however, "such was the demand for female frippery that the hapless Fullerton birds were being denuded three times a year."  This frequency, Sleeper adds, gave the whole farm a "dispirited, bare-bottomed look," bringing about a sale to dispose of its "now quite visible assets." 

Due to their featherless appearance, the ostriches were available at rock-bottom (or would that be bird-bottom) prices. Or as Sleeper records, "An ostrich in full plumage which cost $1,000 to acquire sold for $37.00 undressed, and the entire flock of 162 went for $6,000."

Who was the successful bidder? Why, our very own Dwight Whiting!

And of course, being Dwight Whiting, he quickly informed the gentlemen of the press that "the birds would be transported to a little settlement he was developing in the south part of the county."

However, "insisting that the birds were worth 'at least $30,000,'" Ed Atherton then informed the press that he was quitting the operation, whereupon the operation's supervisor, Col. R. J. Northam, "slapped a lien on the place for $2300 and the bid fell through."

Additional information as to what happened to the Atherton ostriches and Orange County ostrich farming in general may be found in an article published by the Orange County Historical Society's May 2009 edition of the County Courier.

As for feather futures in old El Toro, however, the outcome was indisputable: barnyard fowl, yea / Struthio camelus, nay. 

A missed opportunity? Perhaps. For, as Sleeper puts it, "But for the grace of that interrupted sale, El Toro, California, would have become the next 'ostrich capital of the western world.'"

Dwight Whiting, of course, went on to even bigger and—in some cases—better projects. Still, it's fun to imagine the knolls of El Toro being populated by herds of Big Birds. It would have created quite a flap!

BOOMFREAKAinLF July 24, 2012 at 12:32 PM
Thank you Ms. Whitcomb for sharing another fascinating glance at OC's history! I found it interesting how one would go about denuding these "camel-birds" for their precious plumage. :-)
Janet Whitcomb July 25, 2012 at 03:46 AM
Hi Again, BoomfreakAinLF! The credit for that great description goes to county historian emeritus Jim Sleeper, who I think you’ll agree certainly has a way with words and imagery. At some point I hope to write about his own family’s history regarding old El Toro. Despite the surname, the Sleepers certainly were not lethargic when it came to their pioneering role in the Saddleback Valley!

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