The History of Knott's Berry Farm (2024)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Knott’s Berry Farm and it is a perfect time to reflect on the Farm’s unique history. It’s an incredible story of hard work and happy accidents that resulted in America’s first theme park.

In December of 1920, the Knott family drove their Model T Ford from central California to Buena Park for a fresh start with Walter Knott’s cousin Jim Preston, an experienced berry farmer. Together, they leased land from William H. Coughran and Walter began farming berries.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

Despite a frost killing Walter’s first crop, he persisted, and in 1923 was able to build a roadside stand on Grand Avenue, selling his berries. Through hard work, the Knott family was able to buy their land in 1927 and build a home the following year along with a permanent Berry Market which replaced the simple roadside stand. Along with the market there was a nursery to sell plants and even a little Tea Room where Walter’s wife, Cordelia, sold sandwiches, jams and pies made from the Farm’s berries. They called it Knott’s Berry Place.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

The Great Depression took hold of America in 1929, which caused land prices to drop, and even though the Knott family was barely making ends meet, Walter doubled down, buying more land to expand his farm.

Amid the Great Depression, Walter was making a name for himself with his berries, and in 1932 a man named George M. Darrow heard about a superior berry that was said to be created by a “Mr. Boysen.” Darrow figured Walter would know this Mr. Boysen due to their mutual interest in berries, however Walter admitted he did not, but suggested they look up Boysen in the phonebook. This led them to Rudolph Boysen in Anaheim. Boysen admitted to experimenting with berries, but left them behind on his previous property. Together the three men found Boysen’s long-forgotten berry plant in a ditch covered in weeds and withoutberries. Boysen said the plant was a cross between a red raspberry, blackberry, and loganberry. After securing permission from the new owners, Walter took cuttings back to Buena Park to plant and cultivate. One year later Walter had a welcome surprise — massive berries! In 1934, Walter had enough cuttings and berries to introduce the new boysenberry as a commercial product and Cordelia incorporated the new berry into her tea room menu. The berries, jams, and pies were an instant hit! This new berry had no name and, while Walter’s friends said he should name it after himself, he opted instead to honor the berry’s creator and dubbed it the boysenberry.

The Knott family struggled through the Great Depression, but in 1934 Cordelia had an idea that would change everything. On a June evening, Cordelia made eight fried chicken dinners for her Tea Room guests. Served alongside salad with rhubarb, biscuits, vegetables, mashed potatoes with gravy, and berry pie on the family’s wedding china, the dinner cost 65 cents. Walter recalled the moment was “the turning point in our economic life.” It was really the turning point that would transform a farm into a theme park.

Word spread of this delicious fried chicken and soon people were flocking to the little farm and Tea Room in Buena Park. The small dining room originally sat 20, and in 1935 they expanded it to 40, only to have to expand it again the following year to accommodate 70. Cordelia’s little Tea Room had become a full-fledged restaurant and when they expanded to seat 350 they figured people would no longer have to wait, but they did!

In 1939, in an attempt to give the people waiting something to do, Walter and Cordelia’s daughter, Virginia, set up a card table with small gift items for sale. As the restaurant grew, so did Virginia’s enterprise, receiving her very own gift shop which is still there today.

It wasn’t unheard of for hungry guests to wait over three hours for a table and soon a loudspeaker was installed. But aside from perusing Virginia’s offerings what was there to do during the long wait? Walter set about to come up with some ideas. He began with some antique music boxes, then he built a rock garden with a waterfall using volcanic rock from Death Valley. He built a small scene with a historic millstone and waterwheel with a sign encouraging those waiting to sing “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” Next to it, he added a recreation of George Washington’s fireplace from Mount Vernon. The waterfall, millstone scene, and fireplace are still at the Farm, located behind the Berry Market. He went on to built a small volcano to obstruct a pipe which was was “run” by a little devil turning a crank. He added a honeybee hive, petrified wood, fluorescing rocks that glowed under blacklight — anything he found entertaining, he figured others would too.

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Photo courtesy of jericl Flickr

Inspired by his mother and her journey to California in a covered wagon in 1868, Walter decided to go even bigger with his ideas. This time he would build a Ghost Town to entertain the poultry-craving patrons. In 1940, construction began on what would become Main Street. Walter was on the hunt for all things old west, buying bits and pieces of old buildings, buggies, tools, and more. He used these to build a saloon, sheriff’s office, assay office, barbershop, and more! The centerpiece was the Gold Trails Hotel which was built using pieces from an old Arizona hotel. The Gold Trails Hotel was not a hotel at all — insteadit housed a cyclorama of a covered wagon and told the story of westward pioneers. People waiting for their tables were so enchanted with Walter’s Ghost Town, the loudspeaker system had to be expanded to call them back for their table reservation.

Before he knew it, Walter’s Ghost Town had grown a life of its own and people were coming just to visit the Ghost Town. Walter hired a variety of actors to populate his faux western town and amuse the guests. With the creative aid of designer and painter Paul Von Klieben, Ghost Town expanded with colorful and amusing buildings. Sculptor Claude Bell also helped populate Ghost Town with concrete statues, including Handsome Brady and Whiskey Bill, as well as the charming dancers Marilyn and Cecelia. Both pairs became a hot photo spot for anyone visiting and continue to be one today.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

In 1947 Walter named his expanding enterprise Knott’s Berry Farm and, in the same year, Pan for Gold arrived. Still a popular attraction today, guests could grab a pan like miners back in 1849 to sift for and take home real gold. The Wagon Camp soon followed and became a premiere place for free entertainment from country and western entertainers.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

The 1950s saw a massive expansion of Ghost Town with the addition of the Calico Saloon, the Ghost Town & Calico Railroad (the last operating narrow-gauge railroad in America), and the schoolhouse. While many of Ghost Town’s buildings were created, the schoolhouse was a real one built in 1879 and relocated to the Farm from Kansas. Boot Hill cemetery was also added as well as the Bird Cage Theatre, its façade a replica of the one in Tombstone, Arizona. In 1954, the Bird Cage opened for vaudeville and melodrama performances where the likes of Steve Martin and Dean Jones got their start. And before the decade was out the Haunted Shack wasadded to the park.

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Photo courtesy of jericl Flickr

Things really got moving when Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut arrived at the Farm. Hurlbut designed and built amusem*nt rides and was invited to become a concessionaire at the Farm with his historic, Dentzel carousel and, later, a little car ride. Hurlbut’s friendship with Walter Knott grew and, with a lot of trust and a handshake deal, Hurlbut constructed two attractions that would elevate the Farm to new heights, the Calico Mine Ride and the Timber Mountain Log Ride. Hurlbut and an incredible team created the Calico Mine Ride with wondrous caverns of beauty along with rough and tumble miners of days gone by, which opened in November of 1960. The ride was also the first-ever to feature a hidden switchback queue, which has gone on to become standard in theme park design.

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Photo courtesy of jericl Flickr

As Ghost Town continued to expand, Walter never faltered from his passion for history- and education-based attractions. He brought in Marion Speer’s enormous Western Trails Museum, the Mott family’s miniatures museum, a boxing museum within pugilist Jim Jeffries’ barn, and soon he would add another massive educational element, an exact replica of Independence Hall. Hurlbut along with others from the Farm went to Philadelphia photographing, measuring, and taking copious notes on every detail. Hurlbut even took a shaving from the Liberty Bell’s interior so Walter could recreate the bell right down to the material. Independence Hall opened July 4, 1966 to great fanfare and is still a source of inspiration and education today.

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In 1967, Walter and Cordelia’s youngest daughter, Marion, began to assist her father with Ghost Town operations. Since 1941, guests could roam in and out of Ghost Town, walking around the area for free, paying only if they wished to ride or buy something. Yet by 1968 it was decided to enclose the park and charge a one-dollar entrance fee.

The following year, Marion announced Knott’s Berry Farm would expand, but move past the idea of just a Ghost Town. Inspired by the days of early California, Knott’s new themed land was dubbed Fiesta Village. While Fiesta Village planning was underway, on July 11, 1969 the Calico Log Ride (now Timber Mountain Log Ride) opened, the first log flume ride in the United States, with cowboy star John Wayne as the master of ceremonies.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

With the success of Fiesta Village and the Calico Log Ride, Marion looked to add another themed area to expand the park and settled upon a gypsy theme, calling the new area Gypsy Camp. Gypsy Camp opened on May 28, 1971, and guests explored caves to find a magic shop, arcade, get their fortune told and enjoy music from colorfully attired musicians from an outdoor stage built above the caves. Ghost Town’s outdoor Wagon Camp proved to be too small and rustic to draw big performers so Marion added the John Wayne Theatre to Gypsy Camp. The new, 2,150-seat theatre provided a wonderful, indoor venue and even played host to the movie premiere of Wayne’s film Big Jake on June 19, 1971. Over the years, countless entertainers took to the stage and ice shows utilized its built-in, ice-skating rink. With larger stars filling the new John Wayne Theatre, the Wagon Camp became home to a stunt show, which continues to thrill guests to this day.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

October had always been a slow time at the park, and in September of 1973 people from marketing and entertainment came up with an idea that would change Knott’s forever — a three-night Halloween event called Knott’s Halloween Haunt. Employees in monster make-up and costumes were told to run around Ghost Town and scare guests. The Haunted Shack was transformed into the “Monster Maze.” The Calico Mine Ride and Log Ride also got a frightful treatment. An instant success, the event returned the next year and sold out each night. In its third year the event received the nickname “Knott’s Scary Farm.” Since then, Scary Farm, the longest-running Halloween event at a theme park, has expanded to encompass the entire park with 1,000 monsters and multiple mazes.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

Amid the success of Scary Farm, the Farm lost its matriarch, the woman responsible for turning a little berry farm into an icon of Southern California. On April 23, 1974, Cordelia passed away at 84 years old.

In between Scary Farm’s success and mourning for Cordelia, Gypsy Camp was floundering. By the end of 1974, Marion announced Gypsy Camp would be revamped and turned into an area called the Roaring 20’s. While the 1920s may have initially seemed like an odd choice, it was reflective of Walter’s decision to build a ghost town of the old west. Marion described it: “Just as my father’s Ghost Town was a memorial to his parents, we wanted our newest area to be a memorial to Mom and Dad. After all, the Roaring Twenties was their era.”

The Roaring 20s area opened June 6, 1975. As part of the re-theme, the John Wayne Theatre was renamed the Good Time Theatre. The new area was also the Farm’s first foray into the world of roller coasters with the Corkscrew, the world’s first modern 360-degree roller coaster. Unique attractions such as Knott’s Bear-y Tales, the Sky Cabin, and Wacky Soap Box Racers would follow. Before the 1970s were over, a second roller coaster was added, this time in Fiesta Village, with Montezooma’s Revenge.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

In 1981, after 61 years of total family control, the Knott family hired Terry Van Gorder, the first non-family member to be president and CEO, howeverMarion and other members of the Knott family remained involved. By the end of the year, the Farm ditched their coupon-book ride tickets for an all-inclusive ride and entrance ticket. The year had yet another milestone moment on December 3 when, just one week before his 92nd birthday, Walter passed away.

The 80s would see another big addition to the Farm, Snoopy and the Peanuts Gang. However, their arrival at the park can actually be traced way back to 1960 when illustrator Pete Winters was tasked with coming up with a character icon for Knott’s. The result was a happy old prospector with a white beard simply called “The Old Timer” and he appeared on various employee paperwork, ticket books, park signage, and more. In 1973 the Farm decided to turn “The Old Timer” into a walk-around character and named him Whittles. Awkwardly proportioned, Whittles was simply better suited to the page and not as a real-life character. “It didn’t work out…He scared the children,” Russell Knott noted. This misstep didn’t end the Farm’s desire for an icon and walk-around character and they decided that maybe they should try and secure an already established, well-known, family-friendly icon.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

Ron Mizaker was tasked with finding and securing the new icon and, as the characters from Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts were already doing sponsorship work, Mizaker knew there was a possibility for them to join the Farm. Mizaker met with Schulz up in Santa Rosa, and midway through their meeting, Schulz said he needed to go to his daughter’s ice skating rehearsal at the ice rink that the Schulz family-owned, which was just across the street. Schulz invited Mizaker to join him. During the rehearsal, Mizaker informed Schulz of the ice rink within the stage of the Good Time Theatre and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did an ice show with Snoopy?” Schulz liked the idea and asked “Could my daughter be Snoopy?” Mizaker said they could work that out and that became the foundation of the deal to have the Peanuts gang join the Farm. Soon Snoopy and company arrived to meet guests and, in 1983, Knott’s decided to give the Peanuts their very own area at the Farm, expanding Knott’s once again, to create Camp Snoopy.

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Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

As the 80s continued, two new attractions arrived. The Bear-y Tales family left the Roaring 20’s area and was replaced with prehistoric creatures in the Kingdom of the Dinosaurs in 1987. The following year, tales of a hairy creature brought people to explore and get soaked on Bigfoot Rapids.

The thrills, mystery, and fun continued into the 90s. The Boomerang rollercoaster replaced the Corkscrew; the unique, the intriguing Mystery Lodge arrived; and Jaguar roared into Fiesta Village. The Roaring 20s received a revamp and was renamed the Boardwalk, paying homage to the sun, sand, and sea of Southern California’s beaches. Guests raced against each other in another new roller coaster, Windjammer, which replaced Wacky Soap Box Racers in 1997. The same year also marked the biggest change to the Farm since Cordelia served her fried chicken — after 78 years of family ownership, Walter and Cordelia’s children and grandchildren sold Knott’s Berry Farm to Cedar Fair.

Yet before the millennium, more exciting attractions would be added to the Farm’s growing skyline, with coasters Supreme Scream, GhostRider, and Pony Express, the first “cycle coaster” in the United States.

In 2000, to honor the creator of the beloved Peanuts, the Good Time Theatre was renamed the Charles M. Schulz Theatre and continues to showcase incredibly fun shows, often including members of the Peanuts gang.

Roller coasters continued to make their way into the Farm with Windjammer being replaced by Xcelerator and the additions of Silver Bullet and Sierra Sidewinder. But old favorites were not forgotten. In 2013, Ghost Town’s Log Ride was refurbished and reopened with new animatronic characters. The Calico Mine Ride followed suit in 2014 and Camp Snoopy received many new, family-friendly additions.

Vacant since 2004, the space that once housed Knott’s Bear-y Tales and Kingdom of the Dinosaurs welcomed a new, interactive attraction, Voyage to the Iron Reef, in 2015. The following year another incredibly unique and interactive addition arrived at the Farm, Ghost Town Alive! Originally, the character-driven story and its many actors was meant to last one summer to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Ghost Town, but what resulted is a wonderful, annual tradition. For the first time since their construction, you could walk into the charming peek-ins that Walter had developed to entertain those waiting for their tables at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant and participate in your very own wild-west story with the various citizens of Ghost Town. Ghost Town Alive! has returned each summer and continues to charm guests young and old, becoming a delightful attraction itself.

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More recently, new thrills arrived with Sol Spin and Hang Time, the first dive coaster in California. Ghost Town continued to receive updates and revamps as well when Big Foot Rapids being transformed into Calico River Rapids linking its storyline to the rest of Ghost Town. And this summer the Bear-y Family returns to the Farm with Knott’s Bear-y Tales: Return to the Fair.

It’s amazing that within one-hundred years a little, leased berry farm has transformed into one of the most popular theme parks in the United States, receiving awards, and winning over the hearts of everyone. Because of its age, Knott’s Berry Farm has a wonderful generational feel to it, where people can walk and enjoy the same sights that their parents and even grandparents enjoyed, while also continuing to experience new and thrilling things. There is certainly something for everyone and who knows what is in store for the next 100 years at Knott’s Berry Farm? Happy Anniversary, Knott’s!

To learn more about Knott’s Berry Farm’s incredibly history, be sure to read Knott’s Preserved!

The History of Knott's Berry Farm (2024)
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