Ghost Town: Searching for the legacy of Walter Knott and Knott’s Berry Farm

A classic photo of Knott’s and Calico Square from 1960
Knott’s historian Jay Jennings on a recent trip to the Farm, with some of Knotts’ infamous gunslingers
Jennings, former Walt Disney Imagineering executive Tony Baxter, and Steve Knott (founder Walter Knott’s grandson) during one of Jennings’ book signings at the Farm

By David Chiodo  

Long ago, (approximately 98 years) before Disneyland, before shopping centers like The Block, Irvine Spectrum and Fashion Island, The Anaheim Angels in Orange County,  there was a small town called Buena Park and a lonely Highway 39.
At the time Highway 39 was the main connection for tourists of Los Angeles headed south towards the Orange County beaches. In 1920, a young farmer from San Bernardino opened a small 10 acre family farm. This farmer was Walter Knott and what he and his wife Cordelia built became became what is known as Knott’s Berry Farm.

But what is Knott’s Berry Farm? The oldest amusement park? A theme park? A Ghost Town?

Back then the name was accurate, a farm. The farm was just a small stop off the highway that sold a new hybrid breed of berries, engineered by Walter Knott and John Boysen. The berry was respectively named Boysenberry. You knew that. But probably not  much else. Here’s why.

Knott’s Berry Farm is famous for its boysenberries that were genetically engineered on Walter’s Farm. It is claimed that every single boysenberry in the world can trace its lineage back to Buena Park. Quite a statement. The early days and vision was to sell the boysenberries to truckers and tourists on their way to Newport Beach to make ends meet. As the berries became more popular the farm grew and continues to do so. Only without the help of the family that built it.

But beyond the conception and dreams of the founders it becomes vague, unclear. How does a business rooted in family value, executed in practice suddenly vanish? A family run business of such magnitude that personifies the American Dream dissipate? Representatives from the park could not comment either and finding a family member alive, let alone in the park, is almost impossible.

Knott’s Berry Farm was owned and operated entirely by the Knott Family until 1997. It was then sold to Cedar Point Park of Akron, Ohio in ’97. When the park was sold the family members held interest in the park as shareholders and were involved heavily in the in park until 2014 when the last child of Walter and Cordelia passed away. The reasons why may have passed with her as well. What became of them, they cannot answer.

And with the park’s centennial birthday coming in 2020 Knott’s Berry Farm did not seem to have much to say of their plans, saying, “As of now, plans for 2020 have not been solidified but if there were to be a celebration the family would absolutely be invited. Members of the Knott family have been invited and attended several of our events just this year.”

An irony of Knott’s Berry Farm is that it is not known to capitalize on their own history while in turn has an abundance of history preserved within their walls. Arguably the old town feeling like Ghost Town is what made the park so well known. But modesty of the owners may have led to their downfall, rarely making large news announcements or achievements.

Jay Jennings, a novelist and historian of Knott’s Berry Farm, didn’t seem to think there would be much of a celebration either; “The 100th year of Knott’s Berry Farm will be a big deal. Unfortunately, most of the Knott family that was connected to the farm, as well as most older employees, have all passed on, so there really isn’t a family connection anymore. I don’t think much will be done by Cedar Fair outside of an announcement to commemorate the 100 years but I could be wrong. Only time will tell. I myself, will continue to research and write about Knott’s in more articles, blogs and documentaries as the years roll on.”
The Knott’s Berry Farm legacy still exists somewhere in the catacombs of its famed Ghost Town. You can still find traces of the family and their spirit that arguably created and sustains the city of Buena Park.

The concept of the museum at Knott’s is the sole effort of Jennings, who says, “The Knott’s Berry Farm Museum, was a simple idea to showcase my vintage Knott’s souvenir and memorabilia collection, one of the largest in the world. I wanted to lease or rent a small building or community center in Buena Park to properly house my items in glass cases and displays for visitors to come see but further research revealed that much higher funds than I anticipated were needed to keep such a venture going, so I escaped the idea and went with the next best thing—-to put the museum online, which I did in 2006. Walter Knott’s daughter Marion and grandson Steve were big supporters of my efforts to preserve Knott’s legacy and my historical items, both telling me that Walter Knott would’ve greatly approved of my hard work and dedication in keeping the old Knott’s Berry Farm alive. You can visit the Knott’s Museum at:”

It is hard to imagine Beach Blvd. without the walls of Knott’s Berry Farm. Without boysenberries, GhostTown, Ghost Rider, and Camp Snoopy. It’s hard to picture if Walter Knott would be proud of what he built today. But as you stroll through the graveyard of Walter Knott’s Ghost Town be sure to pay your respects and do not speak ill of the dead.



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