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It’s An Old Story …

South Pas Library’s Archives A Landing Spot for Local Lore
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Local Historian Librarian Olivia Shea displays some of the many items housed in the archives of the South Pas Library — including an actual, preserved baby ostrich, and some feathers from the city’s Cawston Ostrich Farm days. Photos by Henk Friezer

DO you like a romance that ends badly — of the ostrich variety?

Do you like reading about fashion — from the 1900s?

Do you like keeping up with local sports and news — from 1909 and 1922, respectively?

Then you’ll love the archives of the South Pasadena Public Library.

It’s kind of a magical mystery tour — with apologies to the Beatles — through the past. And it’s waiting for you to discover. All you have to do is find Local Historian Librarian Olivia Shea and she’ll see if she can find what you want or answer your question.

You can find records of who might have lived in your house years ago; high-school yearbooks from 1909; scrapbooks from the American Legion; more than 1,500 photos — most of which are online. There are even scrapbooks, ostrich feathers and an actual baby ostrich that has been preserved by a taxidermist.

“Many people may not realize that the South Pasadena Library has a tremendous local history collection that can help them research their property or family history, or discover more about the history of our unique town,’’ said Acting Librarian Cathy Billings.

“But you don’t have to be looking for anything in particular to enjoy the collection. Whenever I am searching through material, I stumble across a fascinating tidbit.’’

The library has been collecting material for years, but it was Chelsea Clark, as Local History Librarian from 2009-18, who started turning material into collections that the public could peruse.

“When I started, we mostly had no idea of what was even there,’’ Clark said. “Once I had completed a basic processing of everything there, including every book, photo, object and every single piece of paper, I then pulled out certain collections that I felt were especially significant to the community.’’

Clark and a volunteer Jane Rosen did much of the scanning of 1,500 photos onto the library’s Flickr page, where they are available to the public. All the local newspapers and directories are also scanned and available for use.

“Since we launched the collection in 2013, images have been viewed almost a million and a half times, proof that people are really enjoying the history of South Pasadena,’’ Billings said.

The archives also contain material from the Tournament of Roses, with photos and programs from both the parade and the Rose Bowl going back to the very beginning.

“One of the most difficult things for an archives is knowing what to keep and what to let go,’’ Clark said. “I sifted through more than a century’s worth of material to determine what still held a durable purpose and interest to the community. This is often the most difficult with new items — how do you know what documents 100 years from now?’’

Shea is continuing the job of cataloguing the collections, which include scrapbooks of the local American Legion chapter; and the Cawston Ostrich Farm, which was located on the west side of the city from 1896-1935.

You have to get permission to read these collections, which are kept in boxes  because the material is so old and most of it has not yet been scanned.

The Cawston collection includes ostrich feathers, which were considered quite the fashion accessory. There is a price list that shows that an ostrich boa (which wrapped around your neck) would cost you $35 in 1913, while some other ostrich plumage might cost up to $10. Ostrich feathers began to go out of style after World War I, but people still came to see and to ride the ostriches.

The Cawston scrapbook contains the tragic love story of Napoleon and Josephine. The L.A. Examiner, in its edition of June 7, 1920, had a headline that read “Ostrich loses wife, dies of broken heart.’’ It seems that Napoleon’s mate Josephine became ill and died, and her mate followed her into Ostrich heaven four weeks later.

The American Legion scrapbook documents the South Pasadena chapter from the time that the cornerstone was set in 1919 by French General Ferdinand Foch, who served as Supreme Allied Commander in World War I. The building still stands as the War Memorial Building.

I found it poignant to peek at the lives of those who fought for America after that war, and see them fishing together, and seeing programs for dances and parties held by the chapter.

“For a city with a relatively young history, South Pasadena has had a very rich history,’’ noted Shea, who grew up in Maryland, where she noted some city histories stretched back into the 1700s. She recently came to the library from a job as literacy librarian at Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

Shea said that her day might include researching information and stories the archives might have about certain addresses, and who might have lived there in the past. She noted that she recently was asked to research the history of an old bank building on El Centro Street that currently houses Kaldi’s Coffee Shop.

“I’ve been surprised that despite the growth of South Pasadena, it has maintained its own personality,’’ she said. “I’ve also been surprised at how well the library history has been preserved.’’

This includes a collection of Polaroid photos of library events.

The library’s records on many properties, including early building permits, are the only copies remaining since originals were lost in a fire at City Hall.

Archives visitors can learn all about the 1909 South Pas High basketball squad — which went 4-6 despite “no one (on) the team” having “any experience in the game.’’ South Pasadena Library Archives

I also had a great time going through the yearbooks of the high school, which go back to 1909. There were poems about life and school, plus the traditional headshots arranged by classes.

The high-school yearbook for 1909 reported in the section on athletics: “Considering that no one of the team had any experience in the game, we did very well and for the first year, we won

four out of 10 basketball games.’’


Editor’s Note: Olivia Pope can be reached by calling (626) 403-7359 or emailing oshea@southpasadenaca.gov.


My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.

Andy Lippman

A former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Associated Press, Lippman writes weekly about some South Pasadena person, business, issue or trend.

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