Part of a continuing weekly series on Anchorage history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
From the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, chinchilla breeding was a national investment fad, not unlike the more recent booms and busts associated with comic books, emu breeding and beanie babies. People invested in chinchillas in droves, not for the rodent’s dense, luxurious fur, but in the hope they could profit by selling the animals to others.
In truth, chinchilla farming was a type of pyramid scheme. Americans across the country were hustled out of their savings. In this at least, Alaskans were no better than those Outside.
Chinchillas are native to the higher elevations of the Andes Mountains in South America. The name derives from the Chincha, a pre-Columbian people in what is now Peru. The Chincha no longer exist; they were wiped out during the 16th century from the violence and disease brought by Spanish invaders. Due to demand for their fur and the loss of their natural habitat, wild chinchillas are themselves an endangered species.
As noted by Edwin Bowen and Ross Jenkins in their 1969 book, “Chinchilla: Husbandry, History, Marketing,” the survival of chinchillas as a species is almost entirely due to Mathias Chapman. Fitting for a species that became central to a scam, chinchillas arrived in America via smuggling. In 1923, Chapman, an American engineer, illegally transported 12 chinchillas from Chile to his southern California home, creating the first chinchilla fur farm. Today, nearly all chinchillas in America descend from Chapman’s stock.
Chapman’s herd included only three females, and the chinchilla fur industry was understandably slow to develop. According to a 1940 San Bernardino Daily Sun feature on the industry, experts estimated the existence of fewer than 10 full-length chinchilla fur coats. There was no true market for chinchilla fur. Still, breeding pairs during the 1930s typically sold for $2,000 to $3,200, roughly $30,000 to $60,000 in 2020 money. Put another way, chinchillas were worth twice their weight in gold.
Chinchilla buyers invested in the chinchilla’s potential value rather than any value that could be immediately extracted. It was similar to the early to mid-1990s heyday of comic books. Many of the comics sold were never read; they were simply a commodity investors thought would quickly appreciate.
After World War II, the strong national economy increased the average American’s disposable income. Many Americans sought to transform financial comfort into financial independence. Opportunists preyed upon this desire with get-rich quick schemes, including raising chinchillas. In this new consumer revolution, investment in chinchilla farming boomed. As one local Alaska ad promised, “Chinchilla Ranchers are earning thousands of dollars a year IN THEIR SPARE TIME. Turn that extra room into income for Education, Travel, Retirement. With just a few hundred dollars invested YOU CAN PULL YOURSELF OUT OF YOUR MONTHLY PAYCHECK!”
In 1946, Buell Nesbett, a lawyer and later the first Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice, became the first Alaskan to import chinchillas into the territory. The downtown Nesbett Courthouse is named for him. Nesbett was convinced to invest in chinchillas by an aunt in California with two chinchilla farms of her own. By the early 1950s, there were multiple chinchilla farms in Southcentral Alaska, including the Johnson Chinchilla Ranch at the Alpine Inn in Sutton. Chinchillas were sufficiently exotic to become advertised attractions, as when one Anchorage furniture store boasted in the Anchorage Daily Times, “Chinchilla on Display At Our Store: One Day Only.”
The most prominent Anchorage area chinchilla rancher was Fairview resident Samuel “Sam” Elliott, who operated Elliott’s Chinchilla Ranch from his property at East 15th Avenue and Juneau Street. In June 1952, an Elliott’s Chinchilla Ranch employee stole Prince Andy, a sterile yet still valuable chinchilla often used for display and advertisement purposes. Elliott’s complaint valued Prince Andy at $50, almost $500 in 2020. In 1953, Elliott incorporated the business into Elliott’s Chinchilla Company, Inc. Investors no longer bought actual chinchillas but shares of a breeding pair. “You receive Profits from ALL of the animals—ALL of the offsprings Born Belong to the Group,” declared an advertisement in the Times. Shares cost $25 or almost $250 in 2020.
In 1950, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated 60,000 chinchillas in America. By this time, there was a legitimate, albeit small and speculative, chinchilla fur industry that supported multiple chinchilla-specific trade publications, including the National Chinchilla Breeder and Chinchilla News magazines. But con men targeted the chinchilla-ignorant, which was nearly all Americans. Most investors did not realize that they were speculating on an unsure and emerging market.
Chinchilla crooks frequently misled their marks on the quality of the breeding pairs for sale, how fast they bred, the size of their litters, and the market for their fur. Chinchilla investing was a kind of multi-level marketing or pyramid scheme, with investors told they could recoup all startup costs by selling litters to family, friends and acquaintances. The wait for chinchillas to become profitable became something of a joke. In 1949, the protagonist of “Our Boarding House,” a nationally syndicated comic strip, offered to pay his debts, “when my chinchilla ranch dividends arrive.”
Everything began to fall apart in the summer of 1954. On June 21, 1954, the Farmers Chinchilla Cooperative of America held the first organized, collective sale of chinchilla pelts. Conducted by the New York Auction Company, the auction marked the formal emergence of a professional industry and death knell for casual investors. However, the auction prices for the professionally raised pelt were a fraction of expectations. Amateur chinchilla farmers, such as Sam Elliott, could expect to realize even lower prices for pelts.
The legitimate chinchilla market crashed, but the news and accompanying market adjustment were slow to reach Alaska. In October 1954, Alaska’s first chinchilla feed store opened in Anchorage, months after the disastrous New York auction. The store was located inside the Peter Pan Superette on Medfra Street in east Fairview.
The local classifieds are the best evidence of the Anchorage chinchilla market downturn. Before the 1954 New York auction, breeding pairs sold for as much as $3,500, roughly $33,000 in 2020 dollars. But in April 1956, Elliott listed a classified: “will trade chinchillas for suitable car or truck.” In June 1956, an E.G. McClusky offered to “sell entire herd of chinchillas for below wholesale price if taken at once.” And in July 1956, another seller offered to “sacrifice chinchilla herd for anything of value or liberal terms.”
Elsewhere in the nation, the collapse of the legitimate chinchilla industry seemed to only intensify the efforts of con artists. In 1955, the National Better Business Bureau estimated the “weekly flow of cash from honest people to chinchilla crooks is averaging at least $500,000,” about $4.8 million in 2020. In March 1956, Good Housekeeping ran an expose on chinchilla investments. Per the article, radio stations in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston aired as many as 100 ads for chinchilla investing a week. The author was blunt; “These ads are fraudulent.”
Outside, the chinchilla con continued in diminishing form for decades. In Alaska, the advertisements and classifieds for chinchilla ranches and breeding pairs disappeared from the local newspapers by 1957, the end of a forgotten fad.
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“Animals Worth Twice Weight in Pure Gold Closely Watched,” [San Bernardino] Daily Sun, February 23, 1940, 13, 23.
“Chinchilla Farm May Be Established Here.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 18, 1946, 7.
“Chinchilla Feed and Supplies advertisement.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 11, 1954, 29.
“Elliott’s Chinchilla Company Incorporated advertisement.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 12, 1953, 17.
Gehman, Richard. “They’ve Made a Fraud and a Racket of This Cute Little Guy.” Good Housekeeping, March 1956, 61, 138-142.
Information Report No. 85: Animals in Urban Areas. Chicago: American Society of Planning Officials, April 1956.
Jenkins, Edwin G., and Rose W. Bowen. Chinchilla: History, Husbandry, Marketing. Westerville, OH: Adler Print, Co., 1988.
“Our Boarding House.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 8, 1949, 6.
“Prince Andy Lands Man in Jail.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 13, 1952, 1.