Way Back When
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.)
If you don't know how it all started, the Knott’s had a berry farm and in 1920 they began selling their produce, preservatives 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’s soon built a series 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.
And then just passed that, locked up in the Ghost Town Jail is “Sad-Eye Joe,” the park’s first “character.” For more than 70 years, this crusty life-sized figure has “spoken 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.
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.
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 “Saturday 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.
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 moved 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 “saddle you with good luck.”
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
The legendary Bud Hurlbut 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).
Also, 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 “Hello Dolly” (and was also seen in “the Towering Inferno” in addition to several other films). It was moved to the park in the mid-1970s.
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 “Hidden K’s” you may want to seek out).