So Cal Historyland
Historic Knott's Berry Farm
1934 was a big year for Walter Knott - even if it didn't seem like it at the time. That was the year he introduced the Boysenberry to the world. But the Depression was still dragging on, so that same summer Cordelia Knott added chicken dinners to the menu of her little tea room, just to help make ends meet.
It proved to be a winning combination, and as the crowds grew, the Knotts began beautifying the area and adding little displays out back. Knott's Berry Place was becoming a roadside attraction. By 1940, there was a lake, a rock garden, an old stage coach, and even a rumbling volcano.
But Walter Knott wanted more. He wanted to celebrate the story of the pioneers crossing the desert by covered wagon, just as his own family had done back in 1868. He decided to build a "cyclorama" - a curved painting with set pieces in front of it that would use sound and lighting effects to tell the tale. And to house the show, he would build a replica of an old time Western building. But why just one building? Why not a whole Western town? And so Ghost Town Village was born.
In 1940 - probably just after berry season - Knott set his construction crew to work building a ghost town out of buildings and materials salvaged from all over the western United States. As he explained it in 1942:
"We are continually seeking materials with which to reconstruct the ghost town here at Knott's Berry Place. By securing a building here, part of another there, an old bar in one place or something else somewhere else we add to the picture we are attempting to portray - a composite picture of the ghost towns of the west as they appeared in ‘49 and the early ‘50s. We are not collecting museum pieces nor is it the intention to build a museum. Our thought is to collect a town but as that is impossible we try to do the next best thing - build or reconstruct a ghost town that will be authentic and show life as it was lived in the early days."
By the time berry season rolled around again in the summer of 1941, the first street was ready for the crowds. The Covered Wagon Show that started it all actually took a little longer. It opened on Washington's Birthday in February 1942.
What began as a one-time construction project stretched over the next two decades, as Ghost Town continued to grow. And the berry farm grew from roadside attraction into a true theme park, as tourists came from all over the world to visit Knott's Berry Farm.
Along Grand Avenue
A few relics of Knott's earliest days still survive - if you know where to look for them.
Just south of the Chicken Dinner Restaurant you'll find the 1928 Knott's Berry Place building (with a second story added), now home to the Bakery and the Chicken-to-go counter. This was the location of Cordelia Knott's original tea room. The Knotts' home was directly behind it, and the household kitchen served both the restaurant and the family.
To the north is the 1938 restaurant building, which is still in use. Virginia's original gift shop opened here the same year the building was completed.
Just south of the 1928 building, behind the Berry Market, you'll find one of the original rock gardens and the George Washington Fireplace, a replica of one Walter Knott saw at Mt. Vernon, built around 1941.
A Tour of Ghost Town
There's still plenty of old Knott's Berry Farm to see if you take a walk around Ghost Town. Start at the foot of Main Street across from the entrance to Ghost Rider (did you know that all the streets in Ghost Town have names?).
The first buildings completed in "Ghost Town Village" (as it was originally called) were on your left, along Gold Mine Road. The "Mules for Hire" building was the original home of the Ghost Town News, which also published a weekly souvenir edition during the winter of 1941-42. This building, and the adjoining storefront later became the Book and Rock Shop, founded by Ray Hetherington, and still in operation in the 1980s.
The Gold Mine area behind you opened in August 1948, just in time for the centennial of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill. It was the original home of the gold panning attraction. About half of the mountain was torn down during the construction of Ghost Rider in 1998. Part of the old mine survives in the entrance to Ghost Rider.
The Gold Trails Hotel on your right originally came from a real ghost town near Prescott, Arizona, and was rebuilt to house the Covered Wagon Show. The hotel was remodeled several times over the years, and was rebuilt entirely in 1997 along with most of the north side of Main Street.
Head west on Main Street.
The Assay Office, Chinese Laundry, and Barber Shop "peek-ins" were rebuilt in 2009, and the original carved wooden figures by Andy Anderson were restored. The old Silver Dollar Saloon (also rebuilt in 2009) was converted into a shooting gallery in the 1960s.
The Pitchur Gallery has been a part of Ghost Town since 1942, and was owned by Clyde Finley from 1944-71. The gallery also ran the postcard photo machine for the Farm, which could produce up to 1,500 cards an hour.
The front of the Ghost Town Grill building was built in 1940-41, but the restaurant here did not open until September 11, 1946. It originally only seated 50 people, but has been enlarged several times over the years.
The Blacksmith Shop is one of several local buildings moved to the Farm. It came from a ranch "not more than a mile from here" in 1940 or '41. Besides demonstrating the many jobs of a blacksmith for generations of school children, the shop also made the shoes for the stage coach horses in the 1950s.
The Drug Store (or Botica, in Spanish) was originally built in 1940-41. It is also a "peek-in," displaying the sort of antique products also collected in the early days of Ghost Town. Next door was the Print Shop, which was enlarged several times over the years. In 1953 it was nearly doubled in size. By 2000, the old flatbed Washington hand press had been moved to the Crafts Barn, where it continued to turn out personalized wanted posters and newspaper headlines until 2009.
The Sheriff's Office is one of the few original buildings from 1940-41 still intact. The poker game scene inside is another example of woodcarver Andy Anderson's work. The jail out back was recently rebuilt, but Sad Eye Joe (Joseph Nagnaper) is still incarcerated there - and if you haven't figured out yet how he knows your name, far be it from me to tell you.
Goldie's Place - to Cordelia Knott's disgust - is Ghost Town's cat house. It was built of old lumber in 1940-41, a replica of an actual building in the famous ghost town of Bodie, California, which burned in the big fire of 1932. It was rebuilt in 2010 using some of the original materials.
The Post Office was built in 1942. From 1951-1963, it was a real post office - the Ghost Town Rural Station of the Buena Park Post Office. Farm employee Evan Brown served as the first Postmaster. Besides handling tourist mail, the Farm also did their business mailing through the Ghost Town station, and a number of employees got their mail in the post office boxes here.
Turn left here.
Today's Knife and Gun Shop was originally a home on a neighboring farm. Walter Knott liked to recall that he and Cordelia attended their first local party there, around 1921. It was moved here in 1953, and was remodeled to become the Candle Kitchen and the Weaver's Cottage.
The Undertaker's building was built in 1955, and is more or less a replica of Goldie's Place. It originally stood next door to the Weaver's Cottage, but was moved here in 1968. In the 1950s and ‘60s, it was the home of the Sockmaker's Shop, and featured an elaborate automated knitting machine.
The Bird Cage Theatre was a long time dream of Ghost Town designer Paul von Klieben, but he did not live to see it built. The façade is a replica of the original Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone, Arizona, with a canvas-covered theatre behind. It opened on June 21, 1954, and presented melodramas for more than 30 years. Today it is still used for Christmas shows and other special events.
The Iowa School did not come from Iowa. It was built in 1879 near Beloit, Kansas, by a group of Iowa farmers who had moved west. It was moved here in 1952, complete with its original furnishings. Knott's then added a bell tower and bell.
Turn left along Schoolhouse Road.
What is currently the Halloween Haunt Museum was once Mrs. Murphy's Boarding House - and before that, it was the post office in Downey, California. It was moved here in 1952 and remodeled. (The Church of the Reflections, now located on the other side of Beach Blvd. also came from Downey, which was growing rapidly in the 1950s). For many years, Mrs. Murphy's featured an animated family dinner scene. In 1967 it became the Calico Spice Shop. Later still, it was Grandma Botts' Bonnets.
The Grist Mill is another example of the lengths Walter Knott went to create a "real" ghost town. Built in 1953, it was an actual grist mill for decades, using an old stone mill from Yuba City, California.
Boot Hill, with its hills and stream (for Grist Mill), was built in 1953, along with the Lucky Cuss Mine, the Box House (now gone), and the Barrel House - an example of the recycled construction materials found in many early Western mining camps.
The Miner's Bank opened early in 1954 as a coin and stamp shop. The burnt-out second story is a reminder of the wild antics of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a parody of elitist fraternal organizations popular during the California Gold Rush. It was revived in the 1930s to celebrate California's colorful past. (It has been said that it is unclear whether the ECV is a historical drinking society or a drinking historical society.)
The Gold Panning area was moved here in 1998, during the re-construction of the mine area into the line for Ghost Rider.
The Western Trails Museum was originally in its own building west of the schoolhouse. It began as the private collection of Marion Speer, and was on display for many years at his home in Liberty Park (now a part of Huntington Beach) along Beach Blvd. Knott's Berry Farm took over the collection in 1956, and Speer continued to tend it until his death. Beginning in 1948, this building was the Antique Shop.
Enter Calico Square.
The Ghost Town & Calico Railroad has been serving visitors here since January 12, 1952. The depot was once the Hansen station on the Pacific Electric Railway (the "Big Red Cars). It stood near the corner of Ball Road and Knott Avenue - which was originally known as Hansen Road.
Judge Roy Bean's Jersey Lilly saloon is a replica of the original in Texas, built in 1947 from an old home moved here from a nearby ranch. It originally stood west of the bottle house.
The Black Bart Stage Coach often sits beside the Jersey Lilly. It actually pre-dates Ghost Town, and once stood outside the Chicken Dinner Restaurant, near the volcano. Legend says it was once held up by famed California stage robber Black Bart, the "po-8," who left taunting notes in rhyme at the scenes of his crimes.
Planning for the Calico Saloon was already underway in 1950, even before Walter Knott decided to take on the reconstruction of the actual ghost town of Calico, on California's Mojave Desert. But by a "lucky coincidence" Knott's had decided to name their new drinking hall the Calico Saloon - not for famed silver town, but for the Calico printed wallpaper that covered the walls. The mahogany bar was built at the Farm, duplicating a 14-foot bar brought down from the town of Vallecito in California's Mother Lode country in 1950. Behind the bar, Paul von Klieben painted his vision of "Saturday Night in Old Calico." The can-can girls originally performed on the second-floor balcony. The stage behind the bar was added later, and Von Klieben's painting was moved to the second floor of the Pitchur Gallery, where it can still be seen if you ask politely.
Head east along Market Street.
The Gunsmith shop was built in 1946, and is a careful copy of an original building in Angel's Camp, in Northern California. It was built as an exhibit, not as a store (the original gun shop was located next door to Mrs. Murphy's for many years). The equipment came from an old shop in Kentucky. Claude Bell sculpted the original figure and did the painting on back wall.
Next door was originally Red's Leather Works, run by William "Red" Walker from 1946 until it moved to out to Grand Avenue in 1953.
The adobe arches were built as a "ruin" in the 1940s. Many of the adobe bricks used in Ghost Town were made right here on the Farm.
The General Merchandise Store was originally more of an exhibit than a store. It opened in 1947, stocked with original inventory and fixtures from the Charles H. Pearson store in Los Alamos, California, a little town near Santa Barbara. Pearson had opened his store (which still stands) in 1886, and never seemed to throw anything away. He ran it almost until his death in 1942. Knott's store was expanded several times, and more and more new inventory added for the tourist trade.
The original Bottle House was built around 1946, and appropriately enough was the original home of the Glass Blowers Shop. Park publicity in the 1940s said it was built of 3,082 - mostly champagne - bottles brought from the old Death Valley area ghost town of Rhyolite, where an original 1905 bottle house still stands. A second bottle house room was still added, then the adobe Music Hall on the north, built around 1948. Besides its collection of antique music boxes, the Music Hall also boasted a painting by famed 19th century California artist Charles Nahl, "The Night Watch."
Attached to the Music Hall is the adobe Butterfield Stage Station, designed by Otheto Weston, who took over as art director of Ghost Town after Paul von Klieben's retirement, and built in 1953. It served for many years as the ticket office for "Bushy" Bill Higdon's stagecoach ride, which began running in 1949.
Want More . . . ?
For a more complete history of Knott's Berry Farm, check out Chris Merritt's delightful book, Knott's Preserved (Angel City Press, 2010). Visit his website at http://www.knottspreserved.com/ for more details. You'll be glad you did.
"What do we mean by freedom? It is simply the right to choose. The right for people to think and choose for themselves. If you lean on government and government makes choices for you, you are most certainly not free." - Walter Knott