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When Knott’s Berry Farm Was an Actual Farm

Orange County was more farmland than suburb – a landscape of orange groves and cow pastures rather than tract houses and fairy-tale castles – when Walter Knott opened his first roadside produce stand in 1923. The dusty highway passing through Knott’s berry farm was fast becoming the principal route between Los Angeles and the beach cities of the Orange Coast, and shore-bound motorists discovered the farmer’s humble wooden shack – located near the midpoint of their drive – as a place to momentarily escape the automobile and sample Knott’s farm-fresh berries and preserves.

As traffic increased, the enterprising farmer expanded his roadside accommodations. In 1928 Knott replaced the rustic shack with a stucco building that housed a tea room and berry market, stocked with Knott's famous boysenberries (a locally invented hybrid). Later, Depression-era financial hardship forced Walter’s wife Cordelia to open Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant next door. Serving fried chicken and warm berry pies, the restaurant became so popular – in 1940 it averaged 4,000 chicken dinners each Sunday – that the Knotts began adding diversions to entertain the hungry crowds. A 20-foot artificial volcano belched steam from its summit. A Ghost Town Village reproduced (in sentimentalized form) the frontier settlements of the American West. Rides soon followed. By the time visitors started paying an admission fee in 1968, suburbia had displaced arcadia in Buena Park, and Knott’s had become a farm in name only.

Knott's Berry Farm roadside fruit stand, circa 1926
Knott's Berry Farm's humble origins? A roadside fruit stand along the highway between Los Angeles and the beach. Circa 1926 photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Knott's Berry Place, circa 1933
In 1928, Knott replaced his wooden roadside stand with a more permanent stucco building. He continued to sell fresh berries and preserves, but now also offered berry plants to his customer from his nursery. Circa 1933 photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Walter Knott with his famous boysenberries
Walter Knott, pictured here in 1948, popularized the boysenberry, a hybrid fruit first cultivated in nearby Anaheim by Charles Rudolph Boysen. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Ghost Town, Knott's Berry Farm, 1940s
By the 1940s, Knott had built a sentimentalized version of a frontier town, his Ghost Town, to entertain diners as they waited for his wife's famous chicken dinner. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

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Aerial view of Knott's Berry Farm, 1937
Aerial view of Knott's Berry Farm in 1937, courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Aerial view of Knott's Berry Farm, 1961
Aerial view of Knott's Berry Farm in 1961, far into its evolution from actual farm concern to amusement park, courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Replica of Knott's Berry Farm roadside stand
Decades later, Cordelia and Walter Knott stand outside a replica of one of their early roadside fruit stands in this undated photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

This article first appeared on Los Angeles magazine's website on October 16, 2013. It has been updated here with additional images.

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