Ostriches…in Pennsylvania?! Not something you’d expect to read but for a time it was true.
William Henry Hile, the man who brought these ostriches to Pennsylvania, was born in Northumberland County in 1869. Fortunate to be in a wealthy and established PA family, Hile studied geology and helped develop gold mines in Alaska after the 1896 Gold Rush. By 1902 he’d made enough money to retire, and devoted his life to other more intellectual and personal pursuits. A county history book glowingly described Hile’s life in retirement: “for some years [he] occupied himself with hunting big game, sociological research, and as a lecturer, making several trips around the world in these connections. His experiences have been diversified and interesting, and few men have had such opportunities for instructive observation, assisted by deep study and world travel. He is considered an authority on many subjects.”
No matter the challenge, they said, Hile was always successful.
During his travels, Hile became obsessed with discovering new ways to help the “downtrodden masses” of the world and build better communities where poverty and want could not exist. And while he was traveling through Africa he became convinced that the ostrich was the key to the prosperity the world desperately needed.
But why ostriches of all things, you say?
For starters, ostrich feathers were the pinnacle of early 20th century fashion. “A well dressed woman nowadays is as fluffy as a downy bird fresh from the nest,” one observer wrote of the craze. Another said of the ubiquitous feathers: “If you would be fashionable this winter, you will be beplumed.” Beginning in the late 1800s, ostrich feathers adorned all sorts of clothing, particularly women’s hats. As demand for the feathers rose internationally, so too did the number of ostrich farms in Africa and soon after across the globe.
The ostrich plume trade was earning millions each year, and on top of that a healthy ostrich could provide a stead supply of eggs prized by hotels and restaurants and could be a tourist attraction for curious onlookers. By 1910 ostrich farms in California and Arizona were turning large profits, so why not in Pennsylvania too?
Hile was convinced (and I cannot stress convinced enough) ostrich farming was key not just to enriching himself, but also to improve the lives of people living around him. In 1912 he published “The Ostrich for the Defense,” a fictional story of a utopian African community that thrived simply by raising ostriches. The book’s thinly veiled prose is little more than a plea to invest in Hile’s ostrich schemes. Not a thrilling read but it does grace us with some incredible quotes about ostriches: “The spirit now speaking to thee, shows me a sacred scroll, and as it unfolds I see upon it the likeness of this mysterious bird, and beneath a message reads: ‘The Ostrich is the Key to the future Development of all Mankind.'”
Did Hile really drink the ostrich Kool Aid, as it were, and believe this whole heartedly? Or was it just a complicated PR campaign that Hile mounted to reel in the investors?
Either way, Hile did find backers in Columbia County, PA for an ostrich farm. With $1 million in capital Hile and his investors incorporated the “African Ostrich Farm and Feather Company” and purchased 150 acres in the town of Espy, not far from the Susquehanna River.
Before long, Hile and his backers built several large ostrich pens and buildings for breeding where curious locals could come and see the ostriches. To keep the desert birds comfortable on colder days, large steam pipes were buried to warm the ground. Anticipating immediate demand for the prized feathers, an outlet store was also opened just a few miles away in Bloomsburg.
Now all they needed were some ostriches.
But it wasn’t easy to get African desert birds to Pennsylvania. In 1911 France, England, and Germany (the imperial powers that had colonized and controlled much of the African continent at the time) issued edicts banning the export of ostriches from their territories. There was no legal way to get an ostrich across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Keystone State.
Undeterred, Hile chose subterfuge to achieve his ostrich farming dreams. He traveled back to the “interior of Africa” and spent nearly a year with native hunters capturing over 50 ostriches. When he had enough birds for his farm, he secretly transported them to a port in Djibouti and illegally loaded them on a steamer bound for the states.
Once the ostriches were safely in the US (minus one that died on the voyage), Hile set to work advertising his farm and word soon spread of the magnificent farm in Espy. For an admission price of twenty five cents, hundreds of visitors came to view the birds in person and watch as their fetching plumes were clipped. Handlers told visitors that the birds were beautiful but deadly- a single kick could kill a man. They were warned not to wear shiny jewelry or buttons as the ostriches might attack and eat them. As word spread of the wonders at the ostrich farm, trains from Scranton, Sunbury, and Williamsport began offering special excursions to Bloomsburg to accommodate demand.
Hile’s farm was also a popular feature in Pennsylvania newspapers. No stranger to the power of good press, Hile often wrote advertising copy and self-interviews and personally delivered them to newspaper offices to print.
The African Farm and Feather Company appeared to be an immediate success. Hile said each of his birds grew 90 feathers (sold for $1.50 each) and 50 to 120 eggs annually. By his estimates, in 10 years he would have over 50,000 ostriches, which he could sell for thousands of dollars each. And with the annual costs of keeping an ostrich only $20, he expected the profits to keep coming hand over fist. In 1914 Hile reported that he planned on expanding his ostrich operations into the Harrisburg area. He was flying higher than any ostrich could ever dream of.
But just like his birds, Hile’s feathers were inevitably clipped and his business came swiftly crashing down.
The ostriches would not hatch a single baby chick in the cool Pennsylvania climate, no matter the time of the year. At first it might have seemed like the birds just needed to acclimate to their new surroundings, but soon it was apparent that something was wrong. Repeatedly, Hile and the other proprietors failed to produce a single Pennsylvania-born ostrich. After desperate searching for help, they found a local barber skilled at hatching turkey and goose eggs and engaged his skills on the farm. After several months of effort, the barber found success and 42 chicks were hatched. But when Hile tried to buy the barber’s technique instead of keeping him employed he was refused. Jealous and desperate, Hile broke into the barber’s house to steal his secrets, but was caught. The furious barber vowed to never help hatch another ostrich chick again. And he didn’t.
With his stock of ostriches dwindling, Hile watched helplessly as changes in fashion brought the ostrich plume out of vogue. The ostrich farm drifted out of popularity, the excursion trains eventually stopped coming and visitors became rarer and rarer.
Bills piled up; debts accumulated. In 1918 newspapers reported that the farm had lost nearly $100,000 and had no cash on hand to buy ostrich feed. As ostriches literally starved to death, agents from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals provided food to keep the remaining birds alive. “Now,” the papers read, “only a few gaunt skeletons of birds remain.” The remaining investors pulled out and by the end of the year the African Farm and Ostrich Company was put into receivership and then dissolved by court order. The dream of a thriving ostrich business in Pennsylvania was over.
A Bloomsburg restaurant bought the last surviving ostriches for a paltry $25, a pittance compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock certificates Hile had sold just a few years earlier. Living behind the restaurant and providing eggs for giant omelets, the hens became beloved pets (one was affectionately named Babe). But even these two ostriches couldn’t escape fate- a few years later local authorities declared they were a “health menace” and were promptly butchered. A depressing end for this story.
So looking back at all this, what do we make of William Hile and his ostrich farm? As I wrote this article, I felt drawn to two different narratives- one was a story of entrepreneurship and an exciting new industry that could have been, and the other a story of a business failure brought on by poor planning and inherent flaws in raising ostriches in Pennsylvania’s climate. I think its probably somewhere in the middle. More importantly, this should remind us to think about how we write about business history and characterize the people in these stories. Its temping to let their personalities and antics distract us from what was actually going on.
Abraham Lincoln once wrote “Men are greedy to publish the successes of [their] efforts, but meanly shy as to publishing the failures of men. Men are ruined by this one sided concealment of blunders and failures.” Hile’s ostrich farm was one of the thousands and thousands of business failures in American history. His just happens to be a little flashier. In recent years, historians like Scott Sandage have used stories of failures like Hile’s to reveal new insights into American history. “Black and white are the favorite colors of capitalism, which pays a premium for clear distinctions and bold contrasts. Failure is gray, smudging whatever it touches. However unsightly, failure pervades the cultural history of capitalism.”
Learning about failed business ventures- their goals, strategies, and reasons for bankruptcy- can teach us about business, culture, and ordinary life just as much as the success stories. So as we enjoy thinking about the absurdity of an ostrich farm in Pennsylvania, let’s remember the importance of these kinds of stories to our history.