America’s First Theme Park: Berries, Chicken, & Ghost Towns
Long before Walt Disney sat on a park bench at the carousel in Griffith Park and began to imagine a magical place called Disneyland– or at least that’s how the legend goes — two pioneers had already created America’s first theme parks. Their names were Walter Knott & Will Koch.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of Amusement Parks at this time. You’ve most likely heard of parks like Coney Island that provided really an assortment of haphazard rides, carnival games, and those pesky carnies. And these were already pretty established at the time — even out West. The Venice Amusement Pier, stands out, it was in operation through out the 1920’s & 1930’s, may even have been attended by Walt Disney and Walter Knotts.
So what is the real difference between an amusement park and a theme park? That’s a really really good question. It pretty much boils down to an amusement park that has a themed area — such as the Wild West or even Santa Claus.
Believe it or not, those were the themes of the two theme parks that currently claim and endlessly debated title of first. Santa Claus Land (Now Holiday World) in Santa Claus, Indiana, and Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, CA — which is just a couple miles north of Disneyland.
The debate is a little complicated due to the lack of actual attractions at these parks when they first opened and the fact that they evolve organically from such strange beginnings. Santa Claus Land was basically a section of a real town and Walter Knott’s park was really built out of a successful chicken restaurant.
However, for the purposes of this article, and for simplicity sake, we will award the title of oldest to Knotts Berry Farm. Walter Knott’s first ‘themed area’– a Ghost Town and Covered Wagon Show- opened in 1941 & 1942 — which is a full 4 years prior to the opening of Santa Claus Land.
We can cover the strangeness that is Holiday World on another article. However, if you are itching to go, the park is still in operation ironically during the Summer time only.
At 31 years of age, with $250 dollars in his pocket and a beat-up Ford Model T, Walter Knott and his family moved to Buena Park, California.
The Knott’s rented a 20 acre berry farm and in 1923 built a roadside stand to sell their berries and jams to passerby’s. Again nothing, remotely theme park-ese. One of their early employees described this stand as a “lean-to with palm fronds.”
In 1928, having sold a lot of berries, the Knott’s family used their savings to buy the land and build an 80-foot complex. In fact, you can still see the original structure if you’ve ever gone to Knott’s Berry Farms. It’s the building where the grab & go Chicken Restaurant and Bakery now occupy. This complex housed Cordelia’s original “Tea Room” — but it didn’t serve chicken just yet. With the start of the depression, the berry business really kept them afloat.
How did berries save them? Well here’s where the story gets pretty crazy — in 1932, Mr. Knott re-discovered a forgotten berry that was made by Rudolph Boysen in the 1920’s in Anaheim. Something about a bush in this dead guy’s year who used to live in Napa — I don’t know. Anyways, the Boysenberry (as Mr. Knott called it) was a cross between a logan berry, blackberry, and a raspberry — and these berries were huge! Mr. Knott was able to command 2x the price of blackberries for this special berry. However, when Mrs. Knott started baking 3 to 4 –inch thick pies that is what really started a frenzy in the Tea Room.
Two years after the re-discovery of the Boysenberry, they struck gold.
Mrs. Knott started to serve her fried chicken dinners on her wedding china to Tea Room diners. The dinners were just $0.65 cents. Word spread, and in just a few weeks, the Tea Room was filled with people. In 1937, they were serving 1,774 chickens a day. Guys, that is insane. In 1938, after building two more dining rooms, there was up to a 4 hour wait time for their meals — especially on Sundays. According to employees, Mr. Knott dreaded Sundays.
In March of that year, Mr. Knott’s started to build various “attractions” to entertain and delight hungry customers while they waited. These included a rock garden and waterfall, an old stagecoach, a replica of George Washington’s fireplace in Mount Vernon, and a volcano. The fireplace and rock garden still stand behind the original building (but no more volcano).
However, it wasn’t until 1940 that Mr. Knott started to build his first “themed land” — cementing his claim in my mind to America’s Oldest Theme Park. The land was originally called Ghost Town Village.
The inspiration for this is that Mr. Knott grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales about traveling across the Mojave Desert to California in a covered wagon. In fact, The Ghost Town he built was sourced from real Ghost Towns from the American West that he transported all the way to Buena Park. By the time Ghost Town Village opened in 1941, Mr. Knott had spent $12,000 building the attraction. But it remained free! The Covered Wagon show that came along in 1942 further cemented the Knott’s Family place in Theme Park History.
However, little did they know, there was a mouse neighbor moving in just 10 years later. And that little Mouse just so happened to be one of the Knott’s close family friends.
Many people believe that Knott’s Berry Farms and its neighbor Disneyland have always been rivals. That’s not necessarily true. The Disney’s were close family friends of The Knott’s family in the 1950s. Walt Disney and his wife were even honored guests at the inaugural run of the Calico Railway attraction in 1952.
However, this had to be one of the most awkward friendships of all time. Disney was all, “I’m going to build my own park.” Mr. Knotts was all like “where ya going to do that?” And Disney was like, vaguely, “somewhere...”
Fast forward to Mr. Knott hearing about the building of Disneyland a couple of miles away. “Hey Walt, I uh thought you were thinking about other locations.” And Disney was like, “Oh yeah, well, I, here’s tickets to Opening Day.”
Mr. and Mrs. Knott did attend Disneyland’s Opening Day.
And they saw some familiar attractions, particularly in Frontierland and Main Street. Little did they know at the time that Disneyland’s original imagineers had visited Knott’s Berry Farms in the months prior. In later interviews, Mr. Knott recalled that he remembered thinking that Disneyland was so packed they should go home and shut the gates- send the employees home- as everyone was at Disneyland. However, they returned home to find the parking lot packed and the Chicken Dinners still flying like every Sunday. 1955 was the best year the Knott’s had had up until that point — just went to prove that maybe they needed some competition.
This competition certainly inspired new attractions and ushered in an unmatched golden era of new attractions including an Indian Village, Haunted Shack, and a Bud” Hurlbut” carousel.
Who was Bud Hurlbut? Well, he was an imaginerer before there was even imaginerers. Walt Disney himself would come to Knott’s frequently to see the master’s work — including Calico Mountain Ride and the Timber Mountain Log Ride. Both rides that would spawn out of Mr. Knott’s and Bud’s fruitful collaboration that ended only with Mr. Knott’s death. He was also the creator of a themed queue area!
According to onlookers, Walt Disney exclaimed to Bud “you sneaky S.O.B” when he walked into the Calico Mountain Ride entrance in 1960 to find a line of people in front of him.
As you know, Walt Disney later incorporated this theming into future Disney rides.
It is also worthwhile to note, that Knott’s Berry Farms did not start charging an admission fee until 1968–13 years after Disneyland opened. While they sold individual tickets for shows/attractions, Ghost Town and Mr. Knott’s “themed lands” were free to experience for all. Many O.C. natives still recall childhood’s spent roaming the park and panning for gold.
By the time of Mr. Knott’s death in 1981, America’s First theme park had changed dramatically.
There were new lands like Fiesta Village, an exact replica of Independence Hall, new coasters like the Corkscrew, and just 2 years later- the Camp Snoopy area provided the park with a mascot. Mr. Knott also started the first Halloween attraction at a Theme Park. A three night engagement in 1973, just recently celebrated it’s 45th year in 2017. Since then, Knott’s Scary Farm has inspired constant spinoffs.
The park went on to be operated by the Knott’s family for another 14 years. In 1997, the Knott’s family sold the family business.
At first, they were offered to sell the park to the Walt Disney Company to become Disney’s America — which had failed to be built by Washington D.C.
However, fearing this would mean the demolishment of their father’s creations, they sold the park to the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company with the promise that they would continue to maintain the nostalgic aspects of the park — including their Father’s beloved Ghost Town.
Cedar Fair has lived up to this promise — bringing live actors back to Ghost Town to act out stories and educate Orange County youth on California History. Ghost Town Live operates seasonally in the summer and is something to see. Also, Cordelia Knott’s Chicken Dinners are still being served on property in their expanded and recently renovated dining space — available to the public and park guests. $19.95 gets you the same meal as was served in the 1940’s — all four courses and with boysenberry pie on the side.
Learn more about Theme Park History by listening to Fastpass to the Past: The Theme Park History Podcast.