Bonsall fulfills fashion desire in the 1880s

 Ostriches owned by E. J. Johnson in the 1880s stand on his ranch in Mt. Fairview (now known as Bonsall). Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center
Ostriches owned by E. J. Johnson in the 1880s stand on his ranch in Mt. Fairview (now known as Bonsall). Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center

Ostrich farm was known for providing plumes internationally for ladies’ hats

Debbie Ramsey
Managing Editor

Those who view Fallbrook and Bonsall as towns where residents are most comfortable in casual clothing may be amused to hear that back in the 1880s, a highly desirable fashion accessory was cultivated here and shipped internationally. Almost as precious as gold at the time, ostrich plumes were in demand by milliners in order to make fanciful hats for milady.

In the early 1880s, a man named E.J. Johnson purchased 23 young ostriches and brought the flightless birds via ocean voyage to the United States. After completing his journey, he settled the flock on 80 acres that he purchased in Mount Fairview, now known as Bonsall.

The ranch land was located towards the end of “Ostrich Creek,” reminiscent of Johnson’s venture. The creek meanders south on the west side of South Mission Rd. While traveling on the roadway in Fallbrook, one can see the Ostrich Creek Bridge (built circa 1920) just south of Winter Haven Road (at Overland Trail). The bridge is no longer suitable for foot or vehicle traffic.

Ostriches brought from South Africa are shown above on the 80-acre ranch owned by E.J. Johnson in the 1880's in Mt. Fairview (now known as Bonsall).   Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center, Union Title Library
Ostriches brought from South Africa are shown above on the 80-acre ranch owned by E.J. Johnson in the 1880’s in Mt. Fairview (now known as Bonsall). Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center, Union Title Library

Johnson constructed a ranch on his property and was known to be the second person to bring ostriches to the United States (the first herd was brought to Anaheim by Dr. Charles J. Sketchley). Johnson’s intention was to successfully raise the birds and sell their valuable wing feathers (plumes) on both the national and international market.

In an interview with the San Diego Historical Society in 1957, Fallbrook resident Victor B. Westfall (1885-1961) recounted, “My uncle, Bert Woodbury, worked at the [Bonsall] ostrich farm.”

Records show that at the time, the birds were valued at $1,000 per pair, and although it took four or five years for them to reach maturity, their valuable wing feathers were plucked beginning at nine months and every nine months forward. According to a 1911 USDA report, the average yearly yield of feathers from one ostrich was 1-1/4 pounds.

Market information from that era show that raw (uncleaned) ostrich plumes sold for as little as $25 per pound and as much as $250 per pound, and ostrich eggs for $125 each.

As it turns out, the birds Johnson brought here were hardly crowd-friendly. In writings on file at the San Diego History Center archives, one observer had noted: “Far from being timid creatures, burying their heads in the sand in the foolish manner ascribed to them at the approach of danger, they show great excitement at the presence of strangers, the males advancing with flashing eyes and wings defiantly projecting upwards, and ready to battle to the death.”

After getting the birds, which ranged in height from seven- to nine-feet, settled on the property, Johnson wanted to share his excitement with the neighbors. “Neighbors within a radius of 20 miles of the farm were invited to a two-day open house,” it was noted in historical accounts. Neighbors were able to get a first-hand look at the antics of the birds.

Victorian era ostrich feather satin fan, courtesy of the Blue Heron Gallery, Fallbrook. Ken Seals photo
Victorian era ostrich feather satin fan, courtesy of the Blue Heron Gallery, Fallbrook. Ken Seals photo

However, it appears Johnson may have been a bit of a colorful character himself. In 1936, a man named Fremont Loveland noted, “I rode my horse to [Johnson’s] ostrich ranch; he thought I was an Indian and shot at me!”

One account said Johnson was known for throwing his stove-pipe hat at birds that escaped the pen, which appeared to stop them from running further.

The ostriches thrived in the mild climate that so many favor here. Johnson worked to produce chicks from incubators and tripled the size of the herd in two years.

Ultimately, Johnson’s ostrich farm reportedly became the largest in the United States. He went on to help create a branch farm in Coronado in 1887 and executed a contract with the Coronado Beach Company which gave the American Ostrich Company a half block on “A” Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets in what is now downtown San Diego.

Ostrich racing was done at Coronado and members of the public were surprised the birds could run up to 45 miles per hour.

Johnson was said to have presented 35 of his flock at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

It was reported that the world market for ostrich plumes crashed in 1914. Some sources said the advent of automobiles over preceding years had reduced opportunities for women to wear hats with the notable plumes atop.

“The decline of the plume began with the advent of the automobile,” historical accounts said. “It was too much wind for the big feathers in the open cars and too little space (headroom) in the closed cars.”

In addition, World War I led to more women entering the workforce and changing their attire to more serviceable designs versus whimsical fashions.

With the opportunity to make substantial money turning south, Johnson ultimately sold his flock. Some accounts reflect that the buyer had the birds shipped to Hawaii.

So, while one may not immediately see a Bonsall or Fallbrook connection to high fashion in today’s culture, rest assured it is part of the area’s rich history. Who knows what might be next?

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