Florida Ostrich Farm

Ostrich-drawn cart, ca. 1917.

One of the more amusing categories of images that regularly show up in retrospectives on Jacksonville history are photos and postcards of ostriches doing unostrichlike things like pulling carts, being ridden and otherwise treated like horses. The picture above, taken around 1917, is one of the most commonly seen, but literally dozens more can be found in a quick Google Images search. It’s easy to see why these pictures are popular today: in addition to depicting the quirky side of “old time” Jacksonville, they provide a look at the early foundations of the weird, touristy bent Florida has gone in ever since. By remaining memorable over a century later, these photos have certainly done their job. But what’s the story behind them?

As the wording on the cart indicates, this and most of the other images come from the Florida Ostrich Farm, which operated in Jacksonville in different forms from 1898 to 1937. In 1885, Edwin Cawston imported ostriches from Africa to start America’s first major ostrich farm in Pasadena, California. Others subsequently popped up around the country, taking advantage of the adaptability of ostriches as well as the high demand for their feathers, used to make boas, hats, and other fancy accoutrements of the time. These farms quickly emerged as full-on visitor attractions. Cawston’s Pasadena farm was such a hit that he opened a second one in Jacksonville, originally at Talleyrand Avenue and Jessie Street. Specifically designed to attract and entertain tourists, the Florida Ostrich Farm allowed visitors to drive ostrich carts, pose with the birds for photographs, and watch them race. The park was so successful that in 1912 it moved to a larger location in Phoenix Park, near Evergreen Cemetery. The new farm featured performances - Annie Oakley showed off her sharpshooting there - as well as alligators brought in by Alligator Joe Campbell.

The Florida Ostrich Farm suffered from growing competition from other attractions that began taking over Florida in the early 20th century, including Dixieland Park, which opened at what’s now Treaty Oak Park on the Southbank in 1907. The original incarnation of Dixieland Park went out of business in 1916, after which point the Florida Ostrich Farm took over the space. The picture above is from these Southbank digs, showing the Park Theater, part of a one time movie studio, in the background. The photograph shows Oliver W. Jr., the “driving ostrich,” a star performer who apparently features in many of the ostrich cart images produced at the park. Not even the talents of Oliver W. could save the flagging business, however. It declined and ultimately closed in 1937, leaving behind only pictures to remind modern Jaxsons that immense African birds once thrived in the city’s urban core.

Charlie Griffin, victim of Ax Handle Saturday

Life Magazine, “Racial Fury Over Sit-Ins,” September 12, 1960

This photo of a young Charlie Griffin, bloodied and dazed, is the most striking image from one of Jacksonville’s darkest days: August 27, 1960, better known now as Ax Handle Saturday. During the height of the civil rights movement, the Jacksonville Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by a 16-year-old Rodney Hurst, had been organizing sit-ins at the the whites-only lunch counters of Woolworth’s and W.J. Grant Department Store in Downtown Jacksonville to peacefully protest the business’ segregation policies. The sit-ins had proceeded without much incident for two weeks, but on August 27, a crowd of enraged white people, evidently organized by the Ku Klux Klan, set upon the protesters with bats and wooden ax handles. While they initially focused their attacks on the protesters, the mob soon turned its fury on every black person it came across.

Charlie Griffin, a student at Northwestern Jr.-Sr. High School, was one such victim. As Rodney Hurst wrote in his 2008 book It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke, Griffin was not part of the Jacksonville Youth Council or the sit-ins, and was in fact only downtown to do his shopping. As Hurst wrote, Griffin’s offense of “shopping while black” was enough to draw the ire of an ax handle-wielding segregationist. With a touch of dark humor, Griffin later told Hurst that while he was walking, “this white guy” ran up and swung on him with his ax handle. As Griffin defended himself from that first attacker, others arrived and beat him viciously. Attacks like those on Griffin continued largely unabated until a black street gang called the Boomerangs started fighting back, at which point the police finally stepped in. In the end, 50 people were injured and 62 were arrested, 48 of whom were African Americans.

Jacksonville’s local papers, the Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal, barely covered the attacks, but outside publications like The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times and Life Magazine were there to punch through the veil of willful blindness. In its September 12 issue, Life chronicled the events in a brief pagelong piece that included two photographs of Griffin. Neither the photographer nor the writer are identified. The first image shows Griffin being attacked by an older white man in the street as others look on. The second is the above image, depicting the aftermath: a bewildered-looking Griffin, face gashed, shirt spattered with blood, being escorted by a police officer. The caption succinctly reads “Rescued by cop: Charlie Griffin… had his head bashed by an ax handle.”

While Jacksonville’s leadership and institutions tried to play down Ax Handle Saturday, the image of Griffin persisted as a haunting reminder of what occurred that day. The attacks did not keep the sit-in from making progress, as the downtown lunch counters agreed to integrate the next year, one of several civil rights victories won over the next few years. In 2000, the city commemorated Ax Handle Saturday with a historical marker describing the events of the day. Since that time, the photo of Griffin has commonly featured in retrospectives on the attacks and on Jacksonville’s civil rights history. In 2010, the photo was included in two exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday at the University of North Florida and the Ritz Theater and Museum. In 2018, the University of North Florida Center for Urban Education and Policy sponsored a mural that included the image of Griffin and other scenes from local civil rights history at the corner of A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and Jessie Street.

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