Breaking New Ground The Early Years of Knott’s Berry Farm

Phil Brigandi
The Branding Iron, Summer 2008
(Quarterly Journal of the Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners)

Long before thrill rides and Halloween Haunts; long before Independence Hall and Camp Snoopy; even long before Ghost Town and the Chicken Dinner Restaurant, Knott’s Berry Farm was an actual berry farm. The story of the transformation of a roadside fruit stand into an internationally known tourist attraction is a long one. In the early years, the little farm grew largely out of necessity—and the boundless energy of Walter Knott.

Walter Knott was born in San Bernardino in 1889. His father, Rev. Elgin Knott, was a Methodist minister, who owned an orange grove in Lordsburg (now La Verne). Walter’s mother, Margaret Virginia Knott (1866-1954), came from pioneer stock. She had come to California in 1868 in a covered wagon over the Southern Emigrant Trail.

But young Walter’s life was turned upside down in 1896, when his father died. Times were hard for Mrs. Knott, six-year-old Walter, and his four-year-old brother, Elgin. The orange grove was sold, and the family moved to Pomona shortly before 1900.

Even as a boy, Walter Knott knew what he wanted to be. By the time he was ten years old, Walter was renting vacant lots around the neighborhood to grow vegetables, which he sold from door to door. A few years later, at Pomona High School, he met the other great love of his life— Cordelia Hornaday (1890-1974).

In 1908, after just two years of high school, Walter set off for the Imperial Valley to find work in the rich farmlands there. A year later, he and a cousin leased 20 acres in the Coachella Valley to grow vegetables. Through the dint of hard work, Walter made the farm pay.

Back in Pomona in 1910, Walter took a job with a local contractor. He was supposed to keep the books (I was “the poorest bookkeeper in the world,” he would say in later years), but ended up as a construction foreman. It paid well. Walter built a house in Pomona (which still stands at 1040 West Fourth Street), and in 1911, he and Cordelia were married. Two years later, they welcomed their first child, Virginia.

A Desert Homestead

But Walter was restless. Looking for new opportunities, in 1914 he moved his young family to a homestead near Newberry Springs, out on the Mojave Desert. Farming proved almost impossible in the dry desert valley, so while Cordelia stayed behind in their little adobe home to look after their growing family—son Russell, born in 1916, and daughter Rachel (Toni) born a year later— Walter was forced to find other work.

In 1916 he took a job at the famous old desert mining town of Calico, where a group of promoters hoped to work through the old tailings and extract the remaining silver. Then in 1917, he managed to get on with a county road crew, building a new highway across the desert that would eventually become Route 66. It took three and a half years of struggle before Walter could prove up his homestead, receiving 160 acres from the government. He owned the land for the rest of his life.

Still itching to be a farmer, Walter turned down a chance to return to his old contracting job in Pomona. Instead, he started off on a new venture. One of his cousins sometimes bought cattle from the Sacramento ranch, near the little town of Shandon in northern San Luis Obispo County. The owners were looking for someone to grow crops on the ranch to feed the ranch hands. They’d provide the land, if someone would do the farming. So Walter Knott became a tenant farmer.

The land was not considered all that productive, but Walter went to work and soon was not only feeding all the ranch hands, but had excess crops to sell in town. Cordelia also supplemented the family income by making and selling homemade candy. After three years of hard work, they had $2,500 in the bank. The children were getting older by then, so Walter started looking for a new opportunity near a bigger town, with better schools.

Once again, it was a cousin who pointed the way. Jim Preston (1874-1958) was the son of one of his mother’s older sisters. As a boy, Walter had sometimes worked for him on his ranch in Glendora. Now Preston proposed a partnership—the two of them would grow berries together at a place called Buena Park.

Preston & Knott

Preston & Knott leased 20 acres along Grand Avenue. Around December, 1920, the Knotts left Shandon and moved to Buena Park. The Knott’s youngest daughter, Marion, joined the family there in 1922.

While Jim Preston was the senior partner, it seems clear that it was Walter Knott who was the one on the ground, doing the work, driving the operation. In fact, it’s unclear if Preston even moved down from Glendora, though his son, J. Carson Preston, moved down to Buena Park around 1926.

Preston & Knott’s first year saw damaging frosts. Then in 1922, prices dropped as the country slipped into an agricultural depression after World War I. Looking for ways to bring in more money, around 1923 Walter Knott decided to start selling berries direct to the public from a little roadside stand. This was not the famous “original” berry stand, which was not built until about 1924. It was “a lean-to sheltered with palm fronds” with a cigar box for a cash register. Preston & Knott also started a catalog business, selling root stock to other growers.

The Advance Blackberry was Preston & Knott’s first big variety. It ripened by mid-April, up to three weeks before most other varieties. By 1924, they had 19 acres just in Advance Blackberries, along with three acres of red raspberries, three acres of strawberries, three acres of dewberries, two acres of Loganberries, and two acres of Macatawa blackberries—35 acres in all.

But Walter was driven to keep looking for new ideas—and new berries. His next big find was the Youngberry. By 1927, Preston & Knott were pushing them hard, selling both fruit and root stock throughout Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Besides berries, Preston & Knott also added other crops, including asparagus, and Cherry Rhubarb.

Knott’s Berry Place

1927 also marked the end of their lease in Buena Park, and Preston & Knott decided to break up their partnership. Jim Preston moved to Norwalk, and started a new berry ranch. But Walter Knott was determined to stay in Buena Park. He approached his landlord with a proposition.

“By then,” Knott later recalled, “I knew what could be done with berries. Others were selling out or pulling up the bushes to drill for oil. No one else was in the field in a really big way, and we were coming up. It was wide open. I offered our landlord fifteen hundred dollars an acre for the ten. ‘It isn’t worth fifteen hundred an acre, and you know it,’ he said. I said, ‘But I’ll give you fifteen hundred an acre anyway.’ Then I sprang the catch. ‘I can’t pay anything down,’ I told him, ‘because we need our money to operate on and to put up a pie-and-coffee room and a larger berry market.’

“‘Well, with nothing down,’ he said, ‘it is worth fifteen hundred an acre.’”

$1,500 an acre was a lot of money, but prices had been driven up by Orange County’s oil boom of the 1920s. Even the interest on the land would be more than Preston & Knott had been paying in rent. But Walter was determined to own his own farm.

Ready to expand, during the winter of 1927-28, Walter built a new building along Grand Avenue, with a home for his family out back. The 80-foot stucco structure included a nursery on the south end, a berry market in the middle, and a “tea room” on the north, with seating for 20.

The tea room was where Cordelia could sell sandwiches, fresh baked rolls and jam, berry pie, and ice cream during the harvest season. The place was designed so their home kitchen also opened up into the tea room. All of the Knott children were expected to do their share; the girls helped their mother in the tea room, and Russell worked for his father in the berry business. But in return, all of them were paid for their work.

In 1928, the new Knott’s Berry Place opened for business. Though barely recognizable, much of the 1928 building still stands under a second story added in 1950.

About that same time, Knott decided to branch out. In the mid-1920s, he had purchased some land in Norco, out in Riverside County. There, he built the Knott Nursery, adding a second retail outlet for his crops.

But the increasing weight of the Depression seems to have forced Walter to give up the Norco stand after just a few years. Crop prices were down, sales were off, and land prices had plummeted. The land he had promised to buy at $1,500 an acre was now worth $300 an acre at best. Friends suggested that he should back out of the deal, and start over someplace else. But Walter would have none of it. He’d made his deal, and he was going to stand by it.

Walter even expanded his operation, renting adjoining acreage and buying more land. And even when the Depression was at its worst in the early 1930s, he still found the money to pay an advertising agency to keep promoting Knott’s Berry Place, and was buying ads in newspapers, magazines, and on the radio.

The Boysenberry

All through the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Walter Knott had been on the lookout for the next big berry, importing new rootstock from around the world to give it a try. Then in 1932, George Darrow of the U.S. Department of Agriculture came to see Walter Knott. Back in the late 1920s, Douglas Coolidge, a Pasadena nurseryman, had told Darrow about a wonderful new berry, developed by a man by the name of Boysen. Now Coolidge was dead, and all that Darrow knew was that Boysen was supposed to living somewhere in Southern California. He figured an experienced berry grower like Walter Knott would know where to find him.

But Walter had never heard of a berry grower named Boysen. He checked the county directory, but the only Boysen he could find was Rudy Boysen, the park superintendent over in Anaheim. So Knott and Darrow went to see him.

knotts berry place circa 1935
Knott’s Berry Place, circa 1935
Courtesy the Orange County Archives

Yes, Boysen said, he had developed a new berry variety—it was a cross between a blackberry, a Loganberry, and a red raspberry. They were huge (by berry standards), juicy, and they shipped well. Coolidge had even tried to market them back around 1927 as the “Sensation Berry of the 20th Century.” But then Coolidge died and Boysen broke his back in an accident, and that was the end of it. The last he’d seen of the berry, there were some growing on his in-law’s orange grove north of town, but the family had long since sold the property.

Would you take us there? Walter asked. Boysen agreed, and amazingly, down in the weeds by an irrigation ditch, “two or three … rather scraggly” plants survived. There was no fruit on them at that time of year, but Walter still had to give them a try. With the permission of the new owners, he returned to get some cuttings from them. And in 1933, he had his first small crop of what he called the Boysenberry.

In 1934, with just 100 vines, Knott’s Berry Place produced 2,200 baskets of Boysenberries. They sold for twice the price of the old Youngberry, and it only took about half as many to fill a carton. By 1935, they had four acres in bearing and were ready to start selling root stock to other growers. The Boysenberry was on its way.

Fried Chicken

Meanwhile, the Depression was dragging on, and money was still tight. To try and lure in more people, Cordelia decided to expand her tea room menu by offering a home cooked fried chicken dinner.

Not that Cordelia wanted to run a restaurant. All the cooking was still done in her home kitchen, and her “Special Southern Chicken Dinner” was the only entree on the menu. From the start, it came with salad, vegetable, Cherry Rhubarb, drinks and desert. The price? 65¢. Not long after, ham was added for anyone who didn’t want chicken.

But most everyone seemed to want chicken, and the little tea room began to grow—first to 40 seats, then out into a patio area with 30 more. In 1937, two new rooms were built, and a real kitchen was added, bringing the total seating to 225.

At first, the tea room was only open during the berry season, but in 1937, the Knotts decided to try keeping it open all year round. During the harvest season that year, thousands of pounds of Boysenberries were frozen, to guarantee pies all through the winter.

During the restaurant’s first full year of operation in 1938, more than 265,000 chicken dinners were served. The chickens were purchased from dozens of local ranchers, all raised to Mrs. Knott’s exacting specifications. Cordelia had 35 people working for her in the kitchen, while her daughters managed a dining room staff of 55. Two more dining rooms were also added that year; now 400 diners could be seated at one time.

Newspaper, radio, and word of mouth advertising continued to spread the fame of Knott’s Berry Place, and urged folks to come and visit.

A Roadside Attraction

As the crowds grew, and the lines stretched down the street, the Knotts started looking for ways to keep their guests occupied during the long wait.

Early in 1938, a rock garden was added on the west side of the building, with ferns and a waterfall, powered by the pump from an old tractor. Colored lights, hidden in the plants, completed the scene. The many coins tossed into the water were donated to Mission San Juan Capistrano to help with its restoration.

Next to the rock garden, Russell Knott set up a display of fluorescent minerals he had collected on his many trips to the desert. Visitors could turn on a black light, which made the colors leap out. In another room, a collection of antique music boxes were on display.

In 1939, the restaurant was expanded yet again, including a new wing on the west side of the building. That presented a problem.

“There was a real eye-sore right outside the new room’s windows,” Knott later recalled, “—an unsightly stand pipe that stood some 10 or 12 feet high. Now we had to irrigate our fields and the stand pipe was a very necessary part of our irrigation system, so there was no way we could eliminate it. We just had to figure out a way to make it look more attractive. I spent several days analyzing the problem trying to think of every possible solution. Then I just stopped thinking about it. One morning while I was shaving the answer came to me—we’ll make a volcano out of it and put a desert cactus garden all around it!”

Built of 18 tons of volcanic rock, hauled in from Pisgah Mountain out on the Mojave Desert, the volcano featured a boiler to create steam, and a rumbling noise machine. They planted some Joshua trees and cactus all around, and there was even a little red devil who turned the crank to make it go.

By 1941, the displays had grown to include more music boxes, a 200-year-old grandfather clock, an old millstone, a huge slab of redwood, a hive of honey bees, a Mexican carreta, an old stage coach said to have been robbed by Black Bart, and a replica of one of George Washington’s fireplaces at Mount Vernon. (The stage coach and fireplace are still on display today.)

Knott’s Berry Place had become a roadside attraction.

Ghost Town Village

But all of those early exhibits would pale next to Walter Knott’s next idea.

Walter Knott had always been fascinated with the pioneer days of the Old West. He had grown up on the stories of his grandmother Dougherty, who had crossed the desert by covered wagon in 1868. Now he wanted to tell that story to a new generation of Americans.

In 1915, at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, Walter and Cordelia had seen a cyclorama—a curved painting, with scenery and props built in front of it and special lighting to give it a realistic, three-dimensional effect. Why not tell the story of the pioneers that same way?

But the idea kept growing. Why not a western building to house the painting? In fact, why not an entire western ghost town, re-created at Knott’s Berry Place?

Work on Knott’s “Ghost Town Village” (as it was originally known) began in 1940. At first, Walter thought it might take six months or perhaps a year to build. In fact, he went on building for nearly two decades. He wanted Ghost Town to be both entertaining and educational.

About the same time the Ghost Town idea was coming together, a young artist named Paul Swartz arrived on the farm, hoping to make a little money cutting silhouettes for the waiting crowds. He caught Walter’s enthusiasm for Ghost Town, and soon joined in on its design and construction.

Knott sent men out who “drove through California for months, buying up old barns, buggies, tools, furniture, door and window frames—everything they could find that might fit into Ghost Town.” Swartz did research, and designed the buildings around the salvaged materials.

As Walter explained in 1942, “Every time I have the opportunity to get away for a couple of days I like to visit the ghost towns of the west for we are continually seeking materials with which to reconstruct the ghost town here at Knott’s Berry Place. By securing a building here, part of another there, an old bar in one place or something else somewhere else we add to the picture we are attempting to portray—a composite picture of the ghost towns of the west as they appeared in ‘49 and the early ‘50’s. We are not collecting museum pieces nor is it the intention to build a museum. Our thought is to collect a town but as that is impossible we try to do the next best thing—build or reconstruct a ghost town that will be authentic and show life as it was lived in the early days.”

The biggest building was the two-story hotel, variously known as the Gold Trails, or the Old Trails Hotel. Originally built in 1868 in a mining town near Prescott, Arizona, it was disassembled, and the parts used to build a home for the cyclorama.

As the buildings rose, woodcarver Andy Anderson populated them with hand carved wooden figures posed in various scenes—a Chinese laundry, an assay office, a sheriff’s office—but from the start, the best known figure was Sad Eye Joe, the lone resident of the Ghost Town jail. He startled visitors by not only speaking to them, but knowing their names, and little tidbits about them. That part of Ghost Town remained unchanged to this day.

At the same time Ghost Town was under construction, two adobe buildings rose up from bricks made right there on the farm. The first was a studio for another artist who had gotten caught up in Walter’s schemes, Paul von Klieben. The other adobe was the “Little Chapel by the Lake” (now gone), built to house one of Von Klieben’s most unusual paintings—a portrait of Jesus Christ, painted with special fluorescent paints so that when black lights were switched on, Christ’s eyes seem to open and look directly at the viewer. Von Klieben called it “The Transfiguration.” It opened to the public on December 11, 1941.

Paul Von Klieben soon replaced Paul Swartz as the “art director” for Ghost Town, and Walter Knott was always quick to sing his praises. “I attribute much of the success of Ghost Town to this man,” he said many times.

By mid-1941, Ghost Town was ready to open to the public. In July, Knott’s began a big advertising push, not just in the newspapers, but in their own magazine, the Ghost Town News, edited by a former Los Angeles stockbroker, Nichols Field Wilson. The magazine was published until 1946, and featured stories of the Old West, some by well-known writers and historians.

But the cyclorama that started it all was slow in coming. Yet another artist, Fritz Zilling, had been hired to paint the 50-foot curved canvas, but the work dragged on for months, with no end in sight. Finally, Paul von Klieben stepped in to finish the job, adding the foreground and a fluorescent night scene. In just a few short weeks, the 20 x 50 foot painting was complete.

On Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1942, the “Covered Wagon Show” opened to the public for the first time. Like all of Ghost Town, the pre-recorded, three-minute presentation, was free to the public.

Knott’s Berry Place had gone from farm, to roadside attraction, to theme park.

The Man Behind it All

While the entire Knott family contributed to the success of Knott’s Berry Farm, there seems little doubt that it never would have happened without Walter Knott. He was a man who wasn’t afraid of hard work, and was willing to sacrifice to get the job done. He was focused—almost driven—as he pushed forward to reach his goals.

Yet he was also imaginative, inventive, and always willing to try something new. The things that worked, he kept; the things that didn’t, he dropped. He understood the value of publicity, the need to understand what your customers wanted, and the importance of setting goals.

During his early years, he learned how to make the most of a bad situation, and how to grow in response to outside challenges and opportunities.

Looking back, he always seemed to be able to find the bright side in tough times. Take the Depression, for example.

“We started out to have the best berry farm, and perhaps the biggest berry farm in California,” he recalled in 1972, “and no intention of getting into all this other business, but goals change as you go along and the depression was a blessing in disguise in that it got us into other things besides just the berry farming and we’ve enjoyed the other things and the building of Ghost Town and saving these historic relics very much and I have to thank the depression for it.”

Walter always credited Cordelia for her part as well. “My wife has always been a hard working but cautious and practical woman,” he said in later years, “and as such, she acts as a good balance for me. I’m a bit optimistic and impulsive. If a man has a tendency to charge ahead too fast, it does him a whale of a lot of good to have to sell his ideas to his partner and convince her that he can pay for them. I did a better job of outlining and considering my position when I knew I’d have to justify it with my wife. Cordelia and I have always worked as a team; I apply the gas and she applies the brake.”

Cordelia Knott died in 1974. Walter Knott died in 1981, just short of his 92nd birthday. Their children and grandchildren continued to run Knott’s Berry Farm until it was sold in 1997. It remains one of America’s most popular theme parks.