Knott's Berry Farm History

Address:
8039 Beach Boulevard
Buena Park, California 90620
U.S.A.

Telephone: (714) 220-5200
Fax: (714) 220-5150

Website:
Private Company
Founded: 1920
Employees: 6,300
Revenues: $230 million (1995)
SICs: 7996 Amusement Parks; 5812 Eating Places; 5399 Miscellaneous General Merchandise Store; 2033 Canned Fruits & Vegetables

Company Perspectives:

Knott's Berry Farm is a multi-faceted human adventure, created for people of all ages. We salute the lure and lore of California and the West. We celebrate the cultures, traditions and unique spirit of the extraordinary American Experience. Every person is an indispensable ingredient in everything we do.

Company History:

Knott's Berry Farm grew from a small roadside berry stand 22 miles south of Los Angeles into one of the most popular amusement parks in the United States, attracting more than 3.5 million visitors in 1996. It was privately owned by the family of Walter Knott, who started the berry farm in 1920.

Berry Beginnings, 1920

In 1911, Walter Knott, then 22 and recently married, gave up his job as a bookkeeper in Pomona, California and bought 106 acres of land in the Mojave Desert to homestead. He later told interviewers, "With all that land, I thought we'd get rich." Instead, the land proved too poor to farm and Knott was forced to find other jobs, such as working in mining and highway construction, while his wife, Cordelia, stayed behind to raise their three young children, later to become four. Then in 1915, Knott learned about a cattle rancher in San Luis Obispo County who was looking for someone to sharecrop a few acres to provide the ranch with vegetables. The Knotts moved to the ranch and raised vegetables for the next three years, selling at market what they or the ranch hands did not eat. When they had saved $2,500, the Knotts moved again, to Buena Park, south of Los Angeles, where Knott and a cousin, J.L. Preston, leased ten acres of untilled land to start a berry farm.

Knott produced his first crop for market in 1920, a year that saw wholesale berry prices in California fall by 50 percent. In desperation, the Knotts put up a small roadside stand to sell what berries they could. So did a lot of other farmers. "We had to do something to make our berries stand out," Cordelia Knott told The Saturday Evening Post more than 20 years later. "But we didn't cut prices. All we did was wrap our baskets in plain, clean store wrapping paper and put rubber bands around them. Others were using newspapers and twine." The attention to marketing paid off and the Knott's berry farm survived its first challenge. By 1927, the Knotts had added a coffee shop and a small store for jams, jellies, juices, and pies.

That same year, they contracted to buy the ten acres they had been farming for $1,500 an acre, and they leased ten more acres. Two years later, in 1929, the stock market collapsed and land values in southern California fell to $300 an acre. Nevertheless, Knott continued to make payments on his original ten acres of land and bought an additional ten acres at the lowered price.

Not long afterwards, in 1932, Knott heard a rumor that someone had crossed loganberries, blackberries, and raspberries to produce a new, much larger fruit. He traced the rumor to Rudolph Boysen, city parks superintendent in nearby Anaheim, California, who had experimented with cross-pollinating the berries several years before. Boysen had abandoned his experiments, but showed Knott six scraggly plants growing near a ditch. Knott transplanted them to his farm, where they flourished. Within a few years, the oversized berries, which Knott sold in one-pound baskets because they did not look right in the usual half-pound baskets, were returning more than $1,700 an acre. In tribute to Boysen, Knott named them boysenberries.

Dawn of the Amusement Park, 1940s

In 1941, an article in Farm Journal and Farmer's Wife noted: "Over a hundred thousand cars stopped last year at a roadside farm known as Knott's Berry Place. ... In exchange for country fried chicken, berry pies, fresh produce, nursery stock and cut flowers, the occupants of these cars left $509,031 with Farmer Knott." At the time, Knott's berry farm had grown to more than 120 acres and employed as many as 400 people in peak season.

The Knotts had also added a small dining room to the original coffee shop and began serving fried chicken in 1934. On opening day, Cordelia Knott served eight chicken dinners at 65 cents apiece. By 1941, when Farm Journal visited, the restaurant, called the Chicken Dinner, had been enlarged to seat 600, and the neighboring farmers' wives and children hired by Cordelia Knott were serving an average of 10,000 dinners a week. On a banner day in 1941, they served nearly 6,000 chicken dinners.

By then, the Knotts had also added a gift shop and several "attractions," including a room of rare music boxes from France, Switzerland, and Germany; son Russell's personal collection of rocks that glowed under ultraviolet light; several rock gardens with miniature waterfalls, water wheels, and wishing wells; a replica of George Washington's Mount Vernon fireplace, which the Knotts had admired while on vacation; and a 12-foot-tall volcano built of lava rock trucked in from the Pisgah Mountain and equipped with a boiler that rumbled, hissed, and spit steam at the push of a button. "It's not half as fool a thing as it seems," Knott told the Farm Journal. "When the customers pile up so we can't seat them, the girls send them out to ... play with the volcano. They get so interested that I've had to install a loud speaker system to call them to their meals when the tables are ready." The volcano cost $600, and Knott figured it paid for itself the first month.

In 1940, Knott had also started work on what would become the centerpiece of the developing amusement park--an abandoned, two-acre Old West mining town that he was moving board by board from the desert. In 1942, The Saturday Evening Post noted that the 1860s ghost town was "authentic to the last misspelled sign, and original bullets in some of the doors."

Like many of the projects at Knott's Berry Place, the ghost town began modestly enough. Knott's grandparents had come West from Texas in a covered wagon and Knott commissioned an artist to commemorate the experience. The result was "The Covered Wagon Show," a cyclorama showing a wagon train struggling across alkali flats. A narrator would describe the hardships faced by the early settlers while a girl's voice could be heard in the background whimpering for water.

Knott decided it was not sufficient to display such a spectacle in a modern building, so he found an abandoned hotel near Prescott, Arizona, the Old Trails Hotel, built in 1868. He had it dismantled and shipped to Buena Park and reassembled on the berry farm. Before long, he had added several other abandoned, frontier buildings, including the Calico Saloon, serving sarsaparilla and boysenberry punch, and the Bottle House, built from more than 3,000 empty wine and whiskey bottles turned inward so they would not whistle in the wind.

He also added live Wild West shows, a Boot Hill cemetery with many authentic headstones, and the mile-long Ghost Town and Calico Railway, salvaged from the old Denver and Rio Grande rolling stock. In 1956, more than 625,000 passengers paid to ride the narrow-gauge railway and Knott's Berry Farm, renamed in 1947, brought in $9.8 million.

In the 1950s, Knott also bought and restored Calico, a 70-acre, abandoned silver mining town east of Barstow, California, which he later donated to San Bernadino County. It was still in operation as a tourist attraction in the mid-1990s.

The Disney Influence, 1950s-70s

In 1955, the Knott family attended a pre-opening tour of Disneyland, just a few miles away in Anaheim. As they left, Knott glumly asked his youngest daughter, Marion, if she thought anybody would ever visit Knott's Berry Farm again. They did, and in record numbers, but Disneyland had a definite impact on the development of Knott's Berry Farm.

Soon after Disneyland opened, Knott added a cable-car ride, a "mine" where youngsters could pan for gold, and an electronic shooting gallery. In 1960, Knott's Berry Farm added the Calico Mine Ride, described at the time as the park's "most adventurous undertaking." Six years later, Knott completed construction of a brick-by-brick replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, including a one-ton, cracked Liberty Bell. The structure was so realistic that the Philadelphia Bicentennial Reconstruction Committee later borrowed Knott's building plans when it could not locate the original blueprints for the historic landmark.

But perhaps the most significant change for Knott's Berry Farm came in 1968, when vandalism forced the Knotts to erect a fence around their 200-acre amusement park and, for the first time, begin charging a general admission. Until then, visitors had come primarily for the chicken dinners and shopped or viewed the attractions while they waited to be served. But once the restaurant patrons had to pay an admission fee, they expected to be entertained the way they were at Disneyland.

Under the guidance of Marion Knott Anderson, who had assumed creative control of the family business, Knott's Berry Farm launched a $17 million expansion. Between 1968 and 1975, the park added the Calico Logging Co., one of the country's first flume rides, to the Old West Ghost Town, and developed two new themed areas, the Fiesta Village, which portrayed Spanish California, and the Roaring 20s, which featured more traditional amusement park rides, including the Corkscrew, the world's first 360-degree roller coaster. The popularity of the Corkscrew propelled Knott's Berry Farm to the third most popular amusement park in the United States behind Disneyland and Disney World.

In 1976, Knott's Berry Farm added a 20-story Sky Jump, patterned after the famous parachute drop at New York's Coney Island, to the Roaring 20s theme area, and in 1978, the park added a second roller coaster, Montezooma's Revenge, which took riders from 0 mph to 55 mph in five seconds. Throughout the 1970s, Knott's Berry Farm consistently drew about three million visitors a year, making it the most successful, family-owned amusement park in the United States.

By 1979, however, attendance at Knott's Berry Farm had started to slip, dropping the park into sixth place behind Disney World, Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood Tour, Six Flags Great America in Chicago, and Busch Gardens Dark Continent in Tampa.

To shore up its position, Knott's Berry Farm began a $100 million expansion that culminated with the opening of the Kingdom of the Dinosaurs in 1987 and Wild Water Wilderness in 1988. In 1989, an estimated five million people visited Knott's Berry Farm, up from 2.8 million in 1979. Only Disney World, Disneyland, and Universal Studios Hollywood drew more visitors. Walter Knott, however, did not live to see the revival. He died in 1981, at the age of 91. That same year, Terry E. Van Gorder became the first non-family member to take the helm as president and CEO of the company.

In 1996, the trade publication Amusement Business ranked Knott's Berry Farm, with 3.55 million visitors, as the thirteenth most popular amusement park in the United States. Disneyland, with 15 million visitors, was number one.

Amusement Business considered Walt Disney World as three separate parks: The Magic Kingdom (13.80 million), Epcot Center (11.24 million), and Disney-MGM Studios (9.98 million). Rounding out the top parks were Universal Studios Florida in Orlando (8.4 million); Universal Studios Hollywood (5.4 million); Sea World of Florida in Orlando (5.1 million); Busch Gardens Dark Continent, Tampa, Florida (4.17 million); Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, New Jersey (4 million); Sea World of California, Orlando, Florida (3.89 million); and Paramount's Kings Island, Kings Island, Ohio (3.6 million).

Camp Snoopy Debuts in 1983

In 1983, Knott's Berry Farm had signed an exclusive agreement with Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts cartoon characters, for the theme park to be the official home of Snoopy and the Peanuts Gang. The six-acre Camp Snoopy, the first themed park area designed solely for children under 12, opened in 1983.

Then in 1991, Knott's Berry Farm announced that it would develop a 300,000-square-foot, indoor theme park, called Knott's Camp Snoopy, at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. The Mall of America was the largest shopping mall in the United States. Opened in 1992, the mall's Camp Snoopy, operated by Knott's Berry Farm, featured a flume ride, roller coaster, and Snoopy Fountain, the largest attraction, where visitors could shoot coin-operated water cannons at moving targets.

Knott's Berry Farm Foods

Knott's Berry Farm's foods division, selling jams, jellies, pies and fruit syrups, remained strong even while the family-owned business concentrated on developing the amusement park.

In 1991, the company bought the PeggyJane's brand of salad dressings, creating PeggyJanes from Knott's Berry Farm, and introduced Knott's Berry Farm Premium Ice Cream and Nonfat Yogurt. The division had sales of $60 million in 1994. The following year, Knott's Berry Farm sold its packaged foods divisions to ConAgra Inc., in Omaha, Nebraska.

Knott's Berry Farm also continued to sell fried chicken at the amusement park, serving about 1.5 million chicken dinners a year. In 1991, Knott's Berry Farm formed a restaurant division and opened the first offsite Mrs. Knott's Chicken Restaurant in Irvine, California. A year later, restaurants were opened in Moreno Valley and Mission Viejo, California. In 1992, Knott's Berry Farm reported that the offsite restaurants were struggling, in part because people perceived them as extensions of the chicken-only Mrs. Knott's at the amusement park. Within a couple years, only the restaurant in Moreno Valley survived.

Further Reading:

  • Coffey, Gary, "Camp Snoopy on Target for August 11 Opening," Amusement Business, May 11, 1992, p. 42.
  • Dyslin, John, "Life Is Berry, Berry Good," Prepared Foods, September 1993, p. 36.
  • O'Brien, Robert, "Walter Knott's Berry Farm and Ghost Town," Reader's Digest, October 1957, p. 178.
  • O'Brien, Tim, "Mrs. Knott's Restaurants Living Up to Expectations," Amusement Business, February 10, 1992, p. 15.
  • Risto, Pauline, and White, Magner "--Then We Could Lick Anything," The Saturday Evening Post, May 2, 1942, p. 38.
  • Rowe, Jeff, "A Less Than Entertaining Year in Buena Park," Knight-Ridder Business News, July 27, 1993.
  • Taylor, Frank J., "I Never Saw Such an Establishment!," Reader's Digest, October 1941, p. 88.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 18. St. James Press, 1997.