“Success comes as you have confidence in yourself,” he said. “Self-confidence is built by succeeding, even if the success is small. It is the believing that makes it possible. No man succeeds without faith.”
With that faith came boysenberries, roller coasters and a cowboy theme park called Knott’s Berry Farm.
The amusement spot in Buena Park, Calif., just north of Disneyland, boasts 5 million visitors a year, ranking among the top funfair draws in America.
The 160-acre plot — from which its Orange County city thrives with motels and restaurants — originated with a 1920 germination from Walter Knott (1889-1981).
“Walter Knott possessed the persistence that very few people have ever had,” said Jay Jennings, author of “Knott’s Berry Farm: The Early Years,” “He believed that anything was possible if you tried hard enough. That’s why he stayed in the fields and kept farming despite his many early failures in growing vegetables and fruit.
“Knott loved agriculture, turning weed patches into crop-yielding gardens. He learned at an early age (9) how to contribute to the family’s income by selling produce from his crops to railroaders who lived near the Southern Pacific track. Knott’s grandmother Rosamond Dougherty was another big influence. She moved in with his brother, mother and himself and shared exciting stories about her adventures in the Old West, which later motivated Knott to build his Ghost Town at Knott’s Berry Farm.”
The man simply had a “unique combination of having clear goals in mind along with an almost obsessive work ethic,” said Christopher Merritt, co-author of “Knott’s Preserved.” “Even in the face of adversity (i.e., attempting to grow grapes in the Mojave Desert prior to cultivating his farm in Buena Park), he stuck to his overall plan and simply did not give up, when others would have more quickly come to their senses and moved on to other, less daunting prospects.”
Star PowerJohn Wayne, who had a Knott’s Berry Farm theater named for him, called Knott “a true image of American capitalism. He takes pride in the efforts of his organization and the quality of his product. … I delight in calling him a friend.”
Another actor, Ronald Reagan, took time out from his California governor duties in 1968 to laud Knott as “one of America’s great patriots, one who has successfully climbed to the very top rung of the ladder of success … yet one who has always been careful to see that he left each rung of that ladder in good repair so those who followed would have less trouble in climbing life’s ladder than he had.”
Walter started his rise not far from Buena Park — in San Bernardino, born to Elgin and Virginia Knott.
“Walter Knott overcame many hurdles and hardships,” said Jennings. “First was the death of his father at age 6, which meant that he and his mother couldn’t keep their family farm due to financial hardships. When Knott was a sophomore in high school, the small bit of farmland he and his cousin owned in Coachella Valley was destroyed by a November freeze. Knott moved back to Pomona and worked in the fields all week, then jumped on a train to drop produce off and take orders at various cities on the line. It was grueling but profitable.”
Walter was 21 when he married Cordelia, his bride of six decades and the mother of their four children.
With their Pomona house, life looked nice and easy. Only, Knott wanted a farm, even in the rough California desert. “Think of it: 160 acres of land to call our own if we live on it for three years!”
Cordelia reacted with tears, foreseeing “coyotes, rattlesnakes, no inside plumbing, no running water, not even a house but a humble adobe dwelling,” wrote the biographer Helen Kooiman. “Sand. Hardship. ‘Walter, you can’t mean it!’ ”
He did. “Those desert years were some of the best years of our life. … The hardships we endured made us tough,” said Walter. “After what we went through there, nothing could faze us.”
Finding TractionBy 1920, Walter was moving back to the Los Angeles area — and found his gold mine: Buena Park. He took up his cousin Jim Preston’s offer to join a farming partnership.
“His farming dream was still alive, and Knott leased 20 acres of land along Grand Avenue from William Coughran, which Knott later bought outright,” said Jennings. “This was the land that Knott’s Berry Farm would later be built on.”
Knott made money selling berries at a roadside stand that grew into a building called Knott’s Berry Place in 1928.
Depression? What Depression? Knott suddenly had a hot seller in boysenberry pie and jam. With Cordelia weighing in with her chicken specialty, their restaurant boomed.
“Few people who went down the road from Buena Park to the sea could resist the temptation to stop at the Berry Farm, either for a chicken dinner or for the berries,” wrote Norman Nygaard in “Walter Knott: 20th Century Pioneer.”
By 1937, wrote Kooiman, “waiting lines were so long, he couldn’t see the end.”
This was after a banker turned him down for a loan with a dismissive “highway restaurants fail when they try to expand,” noted Jennings.
Knott found the means, and payroll was about to rocket — from 25 in 1936 to 350 in 1947 to 2,000 in 1972 to 10,000 now.
“My greatest satisfaction in life,” said Knott, “is knowing that some widow, some young person or other human being can come here and find an honest job and win the biggest prize life has to offer — self-respect.”
Those early employees felt Walter’s tenet of goodwill toward customers: “This is more valuable than what we actually sell here on the farm. Goodwill doesn’t develop simply. It develops only through years of integrity, fair dealing and honest toil. We’ve worked hard to develop this, and we want you to help us maintain it.”
Riding HighWith the food good, Knott wanted the farm’s entertainment to be even better. So he added amusement to the mix in 1940, sparking Knott’s Berry Place & Ghost Town with a Western theme. In the coming years he littered it with Calico Square, Calico Saloon, Calico Mine Ride and the bandit-thrilling Calico Train, taking the name from a town he had turned into a tourist attraction in San Bernardino County between Buena Park and Las Vegas.
“Walter Knott is credited with many crucial innovations that paved the way for his many successes,” said Jennings. “The first was cutting out the middleman so he could keep more profits from his farming and selling directly to grocers.
Then came the boysenberry, incorporated into punch, jams, jellies and pies at Knott’s Berry Farm for over 80 years.
Yet another successful business venture came from the Chicken Dinner Restaurant that has been serving their world famous chicken for 80 years as well. To accommodate the long lines, Knott built Ghost Town in 1940.
Word of mouth traveled across the country, and within a few years, Knott’s Berry Place (which became Farm in 1947) was one of the most successful amusement parks in the United States and still is to this day.”
Also in the complex is a rendition of Independence Hall, replete with a 2,000-pound bell, dedicated on July 4, 1966.
Cheers rang in the coming years, especially from Reagan: “He’s been a participant in every worthwhile cause that you can imagine. He has never said no to anything charitable or to anything in the community. We need a couple hundred million more citizens like Walter Knott.”
Reagan became president in 1981, the year Knott died at age 91. His descendants sold Knott’s Berry Farm to Cedar Fair Entertainment for about $250 million in 1997. The parent company, based in Ohio, has seen its stock rocket 900% since 2009, with record net revenue of $1.24 billion in 2015, although it doesn’t publicly break out individual park sales among its 11 amusement sites.
“Walter Knott is indeed an inspirational figure,” said Jennings, “in the sense that he started with very little and through sheer will power and positive thinking (failure was not in his vocabulary) found the farmlands that he needed to grow his fruits and vegetables and then expanded and bought more land as the years progressed and then capitalized on what customers wanted: good food, good preserves and good old fashioned Old West entertainment, which really couldn’t be found anywhere else, at least until Disneyland opened in 1955.
“Walter Knott started as a simple farmer and eventually became the owner of one of the world’s most popular and successful amusement parks. Talk about inspirational.”
Photos Courtesy Jay Jennings
Bucky Fox is an editor and author in Southern California.