By now it’s no secret I have fallen head over cowboy boots in love with Knott’s Berry Farm. The literal farm turned theme park has one of the most unique, interesting, and classic American dream stories that there is. The book that helps tell that story best is Knott’s Preserved: From Boysenberry to Theme Park, the History of Knott’s Berry Farm.
With extensive research, interviews, and massive collection of vintage photographs and ephemera, co-authors Christopher Merritt and J. Eric Lynxwiler, weave a tapestry of berries, chicken, and a sudden theme park that sprung up as a result.
Walter Knott, along with his wife Cordelia, began their small berry farm in Buena Park in the 1920s, and eventually Knott cultivated an unnamed berry he acquired from Rudolph Boysen, who had long given up on the hybrid of blackberry, red raspberry, and loganberry. Walter took the plant and nurtured it, and soon it was producing large berries that were rich in flavor. Knott chose to name the berry the boysenberry, after Rudolph Boysen. Walter sold berries and other fruit from a small roadside stand, and a tea room was added where Cordelia sold sandwiches, rolls, jam, and fresh berry pie. It was really a family operation, as the Knott children helped in making the pies. When the Great Depression arrived, the Knott family looked for a way to raise their income, and one night in June of 1934 Cordelia did something that would change their lives and the southern California landscape forever, she made fried chicken.
Word spread that this was the best fried chicken, and very soon Cordelia’s Tea Room had regular customers, and long lines. Soon one of the Knott daughters, Virginia, began selling small gifts from a card table in the lobby to aid both income and in entertaining people awaiting tables, and in 1938, just four years after serving the first dinner, the restaurant saw its first expansion, and Virginia got her very own gift shop, which still bears her name to this day.
But guests were having to wait a rather long time to be seated. And Walter wanted to entertain them. With volcanic rock he ordered from Death Valley, Walter built a waterfall for guests to enjoy while waiting. He quickly followed up that project with another, a millstone vignette, where guests waiting were encouraged to sing “Down by the Old Mill Stream”. Then inspired by a trip to Mount Vernon, Walter recreated George Washington’s fireplace. These were the first “attractions” Walter built to entertain customers waiting to be seated, and guess what, these three attractions are still at Knott’s Berry Farm, and free to the public. They are also something I have wanted to share for awhile, and this book offers a nice way to introduce them.
Today, tucked behind the Berry Market (which is part of the larger Marketplace shopping center just outside the main gates of Knott’s Berry Farm) you can still find these three original attractions. So if you stop in for a bite at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, be sure visit these hidden treasures.
But these small things couldn’t entertain the thousands that were flocking for a taste of Cordelia’s chicken, sometimes waiting over three hours, and soon Walter got the idea to pay homage to his grandmother, who came to California in a covered wagon. In 1940, construction began on what would become the Gold Trails Hotel, and would house a unique diorama depicting a wagon heading west. From this, Walter thought he needed more western buildings to give frame and context to the Gold Trails Hotel, and soon a real life Ghost Town sprung up! Here, guests could spent time as they waited for their tables at the Chicken Dinner Restaurant.
Soon Walter’s Ghost Town grew to have a life of its own, and buildings continued to be added, some of which were real buildings that he relocated to the property, others were built. Some of these buildings were called “peek-ins” as guests could literally peek in through the window and see a scene, like a barber giving a shave or card game being played at the sheriff’s office. These peek-ins were followed by panning for gold, a real antique train guests could ride, and before Walter Knott knew it, he had a full fledge them park. What is so wonderful is that Knott’s Preserved offers a perfect commentary on how each attraction was developed and added, and how the Farm had to change with the times, including stories I had never heard before. It also discusses the many hard working people who joined the Knott family with their project, including the self-taught wood-carver Andy Anderson who bought so many of the original peek-in characters to life, and artist Paul Von Klieben who designed buildings, painted gorgeous images for various locations, including the awe inspiring Transfiguration, which you can see and read about in my post about the Knott’s Berry Farm auction.
People came from all over southern California to visit. Patrick’s grandmother originally hailed from Nebraska before moving to California, and after marrying an Italian immigrant, she stuck to cooking Italian food for her family, but every once in awhile the family traveled to Buena Park from Burbank just for fried chicken and so she wouldn’t have to cook. My dad recalls visiting often (although from the much closer town of Downey), and I am lucky enough to have a handful of photographs from his visits (which I’m planning to share in a vintage Knott’s Berry Farm photograph post). And stories like these aren’t at all uncommon as Knott’s Preserved shares.
Knott’s Preserved beautifully describes the path of Knott’s Berry Farm from its first steps as a simple farm, through the development of Ghost Town, and the later themed “land” and ride additions were made, not all of which were successful. I learned so much about the Knott family, long forgotten attractions, unrealized attractions, and how the Farm grew into what it is today, including the origins of Knott’s Scary Farm in 1973, and the unique addition of the Peanuts Gang in 1982.
For some, Knott’s Preserved will be a walk down memory lane, for others, like myself, it offers a wonderful glimpse into what Knott’s Berry Farm was once like. It is something any person interested in Knott’s Berry Farm should read.
Knott’s Preserved is available for purchase at Knott’s Berry Farm, both at stores inside the park, as well as Virginia’s in the Marketplace. It is also available for purchase through the the publisher’s website.
Disclaimer: I was not approached by the authors, publishers, or any employee of Knott’s Berry Farm to do a review Knott’s Preserved. I wrote this review of my own accord.
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3 comments on “Knott’s Preserved”
Knotts Berry Farm was a major source of entertainment when little. We migrated from east coast when I was little in’40s and in those days funds were scarce. So a really big deal was for the family to go to KNF and it made us so happy. I’d love to share with you a iconic photo of us in the “covered wagon” around 1948 but need an email or link to share if you’d like. . Thanks for keeping this extraordinary place filled with childhood memories and happiness alive. People today have no idea how much it meant to so many.
Thank you for posting about Knotts’ history. I grew up the the San Gabriel valley and remember going every year as our school reward for having a good GPA. It is neat to learn more about the rides and scenery that were so familiar to me as a child.
My most favorite of Knotts was riding the cable cars all the way to the south end of the parking lot, the walk along the lake and church, the wall of California Missions….and watching Marty Robbins play at the old campfire wagon train circle, it had to be 1958…I’d so love to find photos of that performance !