|This information originally appeared in the March 4, 2017, edition of the SanTan Sun News and is available online here:
Chandler and ostriches; serious business then, a unique connection to the past now
Several years before Dr. Alexander John Chandler designed his master plan for the town that would bear his name he made another business decision that would forever link him and the town with the largest living species of bird originating from half a world away.
“We believe Dr. Chandler saw ostriches for the very first time at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago,” said Jody Crago, Chandler Museum administrator. “Among the many amazing exhibits, there was a display from the Cawston Ostrich Farm in California. He and his wife had a home in Los Angeles, and he did his due diligence and saw the business potential in ostrich plumes, ostrich meat, and ostriches as tourist attractions with rides and photos.”
The Arizona climate was a near perfect match for the African climate, and in the early 1900s, Dr. A.J. Chandler brought ostriches to his ranch in Mesa and began supplying the beautiful plumes that were popular in women’s fashion. “At the time, pristine ostrich plumes could fetch up to $30 each to adorn hats and clothing, and even in a down year, a pound of ostrich feathers could earn $17 a pound,” Crago said. “He also took on investors and bred birds to sell to other ostrich farmers.”
Dr. Chandler founded his town in 1912, and eventually moved his thriving ostrich operations from Mesa to his Chandler ranch. Winter guests at his San Marcos Hotel would visit the nearby pens and marvel at the large birds. According to the Chandler Arizonan newspaper published Nov. 13, 1914, “The introduction of the birds to Chandler will prove a novelty to many and will be a splendid attraction for tourists.” And that proved to be true for the next several years. Visitors to the San Marcos Hotel could feed the ostriches, have photos taken with them and dine on special single egg omelettes that could feed 10-15 people.
However, within a few years, America had entered World War I, ladies fashions had become less ostentatious and the novelty had worn off for the public. Additionally, ostriches were susceptible to the Spanish Flu virus that killed millions of people around the world between 1918 and 1920, and Dr. Chandler and other ostrich ranchers lost significant numbers of birds to the pandemic. By 1920, the bottom had dropped out of the industry and an ostrich that had been worth as much as $3,000 was only valued at $250. Dr. Chandler divested himself of the ostrich business soon after.
Stories about Dr. Chandler and his ostriches became part of local lore, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the community fully embraced this time in its past. Chandler had an annual festival each spring, but it lacked the imagination and creativity that would make it a regional attraction. City officials and the Chamber of Commerce wanted to tap into some part of Chandler history to cultivate community pride and find a theme that would be unique to Chandler. The exotic ostriches and the quirky entertainment of ostrich racing proved to be the key to success.
The first Ostrich Festival in 1988 was appropriately held in Dr. A.J. Chandler Park, and the festival rapidly grew into one of the most popular annual events in the state. By 2003, the festival had outgrown the downtown area and was moved to nearby Tumbleweed Park. This year’s event begins March 4 with Kickoff Weekend, featuring the Mayor’s 5K Fun Run, Ostrich Festival Parade, Classic Car Show and Public Safety Fair with the City Police and Fire, Health & Medical departments. The 29th Annual Chandler Chamber Ostrich Festival is March 10-12 and complete details are online at ostrichfestival.com.
Details for this article and several photos were provided by the Chandler Museum. More information and images of the history of ostriches in Chandler are available online at chandlerpedia.org.
PHOTO (RIGHT): Chandler Museum Administrator Jody Crago stands by a decorative ostrich located in the Museum. Several decorative ostriches like this one are in stores and galleries in the downtown area..
PHOTO: Two photos from the 1914 ostrich drive are combined to show the ostrich herd, cowboys and chuck wagon moving east toward Chandler with the Sierra Estrella mountains in the background.
The Great Chandler Ostrich Drive and the legend of Rough Neck, the ‘man killer’ ostrich
In November 1914, near the peak of the market for the ostrich farming industry in America, Dr. A.J. Chandler purchased 200 ostriches from the Pan-American Ostrich Farm, in Cashion, southwest of Phoenix. The story of how he moved those ostriches nearly 50 miles to his ranch near the San Marcos Hotel in Chandler is one for the ages.
“He could have transported his ostriches from west Phoenix to Chandler by railcar in a day, which was often how they were moved, but he was supposedly worried about the birds getting hurt during a short but rough train ride,” said Chandler Museum Administrator Jody Crago. Of course, Dr. Chandler was a bit of a showman and self-promoter, so it’s possible there were other reasons why he came up with a plan that would draw more attention and onlookers.
The good doctor hired local cowboys to herd the ostriches from west of Phoenix, down through the gap between the Sierra Estrella mountains and South Mountain, then east across the desert – in the area that is now Ahwatukee – and along the dirt roads to a 140-acre section of his Chandler ranch. The Great Chandler Ostrich Drive of 1914 only took a few days, but it left a lasting mark on the community.
More than a dozen cowboys on horseback drove the ostrich herd through the desert by day then set up camp, ate a chuck wagon meal and retired for the evening. The next morning they woke up to do it all again. Things were going fairly well until the group got closer to Chandler and encountered some local residents who came out to observe this novel sight for themselves. At some point the ostriches were spooked and began to stampede. The wild sight also spooked a horse pulling a buggy driven by rancher L.D. Rousseau. The horse bolted, the buggy was overturned, and Mr. Rousseau’s wife, who was a passenger, was killed instantly.
According to the Chandler Arizonan newspaper published Nov. 13, 1914, “In spite of efforts to control them they swept down the road at terrific speed, meeting the conveyance containing Mr. and Mrs. Rousseau and causing the runaway. Mrs. Rousseau was thrown out and her skull fractured. Her husband escaped with a dislocated arm.”
And now, for the rest of the story.
One of the most notorious birds in the Chandler herd was known as Rough Neck. Rough Neck was so named because his long neck was marked with scars he had received doing battle with both man and ostrich. While at the Pan American Ostrich Farm, he had kicked in the chest of a man with the claw on his foot, killing him almost instantly. Shortly after that, he attacked another attendant who also died from his injuries.
It was Rough Neck, the “man killer,” who was thought to have started the stampede that scattered the herd, killed Mrs. Rousseau and injured her husband.
During his brief time in Chandler, Rough Neck was known as an instigator. The Chandler Arizonan stated “The animal was decidedly ferocious and boldly attacked the men as they entered the field. Woe betide the person who went in unarmed or not carrying a club.”
“It was with no sense of sadness, and a feeling almost bordering on relief, when the Chandler Arizonan reported months later that Rough Neck had died,” Crago said. The paper’s headline read, “Mankiller Bird Dead,” and noted that the fearsome ostrich had “lapped his long, battle-scarred neck around a strand of wire in such a way as to twist the neck into a knot, cutting off his wind.”
Excerpt from a story in the Chandler Arizonan, Dec. 4, 1914:
It's a Gay Life Chasing Ostriches
“Ostriches, ostriches, everywhere, but not one to eat,” is a perverted adage that is adding to the gaiety of nations in Chandler.
Stampeding birds are now as common as autos, the latest escapade occurring Sunday when a wagon load of the bipeds made things lively for some hours …
One audacious bird put his best foot through the window of the men’s retiring room in the Hotel San Marcos, and created a furore [sic] of over-exaggerated joy among the guests.
In the melee Ernest Ellsworth, who was guarding the birds, had his elbow dislocated, receiving other bruises. One bird was killed and other was so badly cut by barbed wire that it will have to be put to death.
Another bird was cavorting around the office of the Chandler Arizonan, evidently bent on seeing what kind of report the paper would write about his escape …
- The flightless ostrich is the world’s largest bird. An adult male can reach nine feet in height and weigh up to 250 pounds. An adult female can be nearly seven feet tall and weigh 220 pounds.
- The ostrich has the largest eye of any land animal, measuring almost 2 inches across, allowing predators such as lions to be seen at long distances.
- Ostriches are the fast runners of any birds or other two-legged animal and can sprint up to 43 miles per hour, covering up to 16 feet in a single stride.
- Ostriches’ wings reach a span of about six feet and are used in mating displays, to shade chicks, to cover the naked skin of the upper legs and flanks to conserve heat, and as “rudders” to help them change direction while running.
- When threatened ostriches run, although their powerful, long legs can be formidable weapons, capable of killing a human or a potential predator like a lion with a forward kick.
- Ostriches’ running is aided by having just two toes on each foot (most birds have four), with the large nail on the larger, inner toe resembling a hoof.
- The giant eggs are the largest of any living bird at six inches long and weighing as much as two dozen chicken eggs, though they are actually the smallest eggs relative to the size of the adult bird.
- The eggs are incubated by the dominant female by day and by the male by night, using the colouration of the two sexes to escape detection of the nest, as the drab female blends in with the sand, while the black male is nearly undetectable in the dark.
- When the eggs hatch after 35 to 45 days incubation, the male usually defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, although males and females cooperate in rearing chicks.
- Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand: the myth probably originates from the bird’s defensive behavior of lying low at the approach of trouble and pressing their long necks to the ground in an attempt to become less visible. Their plumage blends well with sandy soil and, from a distance, gives the appearance that they have buried their heads in the sand.