July 24, 2014

Recently, we shared some hidden Disneyland history in honor of the park's 59th birthday. But here in Orange County it's worth remembering that there's another historic theme park that goes back even further, with roots both figurative and literal: Knott'€™s Berry Farm." 

Historical image of Walter and Cordelia Knott

Photo courtesy of OC Archives

Way Back When: How It All Started

Yes, Walter and Cordelia Knott (and family) certainly left their mark deep in the soil of Southern California. But so did those boysenberry bushes, which still grow on the property that once contained the old farm. Interestingly, pretty much every boysenberry in the world is connected to the plants that Walter Knott grew here back in the early 1930s. (Boysenberry's are a hybrid of blackberry, raspberry and Logan berry, and were originally created in 1923 by a man named Rudolf Boysen.)

Historical image of Knott's Berry Farm

Photo courtesy of OC Archives

Recently we took a walk around the park with Knott'€™s Berry Farm historian Eric Lynxwiler (co-author of the book, '€œKnott'€™s Preserved: From Boysenberry to Theme Park, the History of Knott'€™s Berry Farm'€). He revealed many hidden pieces of history; charming remnants that remind the visitor that long before Disneyland, Walter Knott was all but birthing the theme park concept, lugging in piece after historic piece, one chunk of Americana at a time.

If you don't know how it all started, the Knott family moved to Buena Park in 1920, and soon after had a berry farm and began selling their produce, preserves and pies from a roadside stand." Then in 1934, the family began selling fried chicken dinners in a room on their property, which later became Mrs. Knott'€™s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. The dinners were so popular that the Knott family soon built a series of attractions to engage visitors while they waited hours for a table. There were fern gardens, dahlia gardens, beehives, monkey cages and other curiosities to bide hungry visitors'€™ time. But soon even those were not enough, and so in 1940, Walter Knott began constructing his now famous Ghost Town. Thus was the birth of the now famous theme park.

Retracing the Past

Strolling through Ghost Town today, it's impressive how many original bits and pieces still remain from the early 1940s. One piece that stands out is part of the original arbor that led customers from the busy restaurant into the original Ghost Town, where they could spend time while waiting to eat.

Arbor at Knott's Berry Farm

And just pass that, locked up in the Ghost Town Jail, is '€œSad-Eye Joe'€ '€“ the park'€™s first '€œcharacter.'€ For more than 70 years, this crusty life-sized figure has '€œspoken back'€ to any guest that chooses to engage with him. Just look through the bars and say something. Joe is sure to answer you back.

Sad-Eye Joe at Knott's Berry Farm

In the picture gallery, where today guests can dress up in Western costumes to have their photograph snapped, a bucking bronco that'€™s been there since 1941 still waits for riders to hop on and pose.

Bronco at Knott's Berry Farm

But when you visit the picture gallery be sure to take a look at the massive painting hanging halfway up the staircase. It'€™s the original '€œSaturday Night in Old Calico '€“ 1888'€ painted by Paul V. Kleiben, the visionary artist/designer that helped design and create Ghost Town. At one time it sat behind a stage in the old saloon.

"Saturday Night in Old Calico-1888" Painting in Knott's Berry Farm

A Barn Worth Fighting For

Many people are familiar with classic Knott'€™s structures including the Birdcage Theater, which opened back in 1954 in the 1879 schoolhouse that was transported from Kansas. But there's also a large red barn in Ghost Town with quite a history. Today it is called the Wilderness Dance Hall, but at one time the structure belonged to legendary heavyweight boxer James Jeffries. He built the barn in the San Fernando Valley and used it not just to train but to also host boxing matches. After Jeffrey's death in 1953, the barn was dismantled and brought to Knott'€™s Berry Farm. If you look closely at the side of the barn today, you can still see part of Jeffrey's name ghosted on the side of the building.

When walking past the old Western burial ground, make sure you pause over the grave of one Hiram McTavish. Place your foot on the dirt in front of his headstone and you will feel, as thousands have for decades, the pulsing heart which legend claims, will '€œsaddle you with good luck.'€

Grave of Hiram McTavish at Knott's Berry Farm

All throughout Ghost Town, which truly became fortified with artifacts after Walter Knott purchased the very real ghost town called Calico in 1950, it's worth peeking into windows and poking around corners. After all, many original characters, antiques and figures are still present in the many authentic buildings and structures.

The Disney Connection

Mr. Lynxwiler, an extremely knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, also spent time talking about the legendary Bud Hurlbut, who designed many attractions at the park including both the Calico Mine Train and Timber Mountain Log Ride (the first themed log ride). These two attractions in particular clearly influenced attractions now found at Disneyland, which makes total sense when you consider that Walt himself would visit his friend Walter at Knott'€™s Berry Farm in the early 1950s as he planned his own theme park in nearby Anaheim (which would open in 1955).

Lynxwiler also pointed out a piece of classic movie memorabilia. Next time you're in Charleston Circle, note the giant fountain in the middle of the plaza. It's the famous fountain featured in the film '€œHello Dolly'€ (and was also seen in '€œThe Towering Inferno,'€ in addition to several other films). It was moved to the park in the mid-1970s. (And psst '€“ look for the '€œHidden Snoopy'€ near the fountain!)

Fountain from Hello Dolly at Knott's Berry Farm
Hidden Snoopy at Knott's Berry Farm

You may remember an attraction called Knott'€™s Berry Tales, a surreal dark ride that utilized both black and incandescent light. It was open from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s and, though long gone, three original characters remain in the Toy Barn. In fact, they even still move to the music when the right switch is flipped, bringing the past alive even if just for a minute or two. After the attraction was taken down, it was replaced with the Kingdom of the Dinosaurs. That attraction has also become extinct, but you may still notice some dinosaur tracks throughout the park, which led visitors to the Kingdom attraction.

Berry Tales at Knott's Berry Farm

How the West is Fun

Knott'€™s Berry Farm is like a living history museum in and of itself. Yes there are dazzling thrill rides, Camp Snoopy and arguably the best chicken dinner in the land. But there are also wonderful traces and reminders of just how this park began in the first place. Remember, this was once a farm and a family home. And it was also a place where a great American dreamer pieced together what remains one of the most dedicated, heartfelt and imaginative places you'll ever visit. So enjoy all of the thrills and excitement at Knott'€™s Berry Farm '€“ but don't forget to take some time to wander, explore and poke around. There's old-time magic bottled and stored around every corner, in every crevice and in each footstep. (And two '€œHidden K'€™s'€ you may want to seek out).

Hidden K at Knott's Berry Farm

Related Blog Posts:

Stay Connected: