Rarely Seen Photos From Knott's Berry Farm's 99-Year History

An early photo of Ghost Town's Main Street. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)

Knott's Berry Farm is best known as a theme park, but the 100th anniversary of its humble beginning as an actual berry farm is coming up next year.

"Nobody knows," Knott's historian Eric Lynxwiler said. "It didn't start with roller coasters — it wasn't even planned."

Walter Knott in raspberry fields in the 1920s. Red raspberries were a profitable crop but couldn't compare with his 1934 introduction of the boysenberry (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)

The Knott's Berry Farm story started when a relative invited Walter and Cordelia Knott to come to Buena Park, according to Lynxwiler. They set up a roadside stand to sell those berries.

Lynxwiler, who co-wrote a book about the history of Knott's Berry Farm, collects photos from throughout the park's past. You can see a sampling of those photos here, along with other retro looks into the park's past.

Grand Avenue, 1940. The business front Walter Knott built in 1928 had grown into a distinct roadside attraction with its eye-catching neon sign placed in front of the main dining room to let guests know they had arrived at Knott's Berry Place. (Orange County Archives, courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)

BEGINNINGS

Knott's Berry Farm's strawberry fields, circa 1930. (Orange County Archives, courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)

The Knotts bought the land they were farming when the opportunity came up in 1927. With the land secured, they started to build a more permanent structure than their modest berry stand.

The Knotts started to hit on something when they discovered an experimental berry that had been developed by Rudolph Boysen and later abandoned. Knott produced a bumper crop of the large berries with a unique taste and, rather than taking all the credit for himself, christened them "boysenberries."

Those boysenberries put the Knotts farm on the map. But it's what they did next that turned the farm into a hit in the midst of the Great Depression.

Ghost Town Village, about 1943. Hand-aged buildings on the brink of collapse, lonely eucalyptus trees, and strategically placed tumbleweeds gave the village a sense of history. The fencing in the foreground kept Chicken Dinner Restaurant patrons from parking their cars on Main Street. (Orange County Archives, courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)

Cordelia had a tea room that served snacks, and it became one of the biggest early draws thanks to a legendary fried chicken Sunday dinner. Those chicken dinners were so popular that people were lining up by the hundreds and even thousands.

"Walter Knott just had so many people coming to his farm in the '30s and '40s that he had to entertain them somehow," Lynxwiler said.

The answer: small "amusements" around his farm.

"He thought, 'If it amused me, it will amuse someone else,'" Lynxwiler said.

Elvis Presley on at Knott's Berry Farm in California, circa 1955. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A THEME PARK IS BORN

Early attractions included items like an ore car, logging wheels from Northern California, a petrified tree stump, and phosphorescent rocks. Knott also started mixing real items with fantasy — like claiming that he'd found California's last active volcano and moved it to his farm.

(Not really) the only active volcano in California, according to Knott's. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)

In 1940, the Knotts decided to expand. The next year, the first thing we'd think of as being representative of an actual theme park opened, with Ghost Town making its debut.

The thing that makes it special, Lynxwiler said, is that it's meant to be as vintage and authentic as possible.

"It wasn't a cartoon frontier land," he said.

Republican then-presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon, center, escorted by Secret Service agents, pressed by the crowd as he arrives for dinner at Knott's Berry Farm on Aug. 16, 1968. (Henry Burroughs/AP)

PRESERVING THE HISTORY

Lynxwiler credits the book he co-authored with Christopher Merritt in 2010 with helping to rejuvenate Knott's Berry Farm.

"I mean, to be quite frank, Knott's was really kind of going downhill," Lynxwiler said.

The park, no longer owned by the Knott family, had been sold to an Ohio amusement park company. The focus had turned to new roller coasters, but Lynxwiler argues that's not the point of Knott's — as a theme park, it's about the theme.

Bud Hurlbut's attractions at Knott's began with a Dentzel carousel and a little car ride, but he changed the theme park industry with his designs for the Calico Mine Ride (1960) and the Timber Mountain Log Ride (1969). Both attractions inspired copycats. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
In 2013, Bud Hurlbut's Timber Mountain Log Ride would receive a major rehab, with new scenes and animatronic figures. The following year, the Calico Mine Ride received a similar, top-to-bottom upgrade. (Sean Teegarden Photography, courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)

"They were looking around and going, 'Oh, that's what that is,'" Lynxwiler said.

The thing Lynxwiler loves most about collecting those photos is seeing the "anonymous, nameless guests who are captured in time" attending the park, along with being able to track how the park has changed over the years.

The debut of Knott's Roaring '20s in summer 1975. The newly expanded area elevated the Farm as a contender in the competitive Southern California theme park market. With a stronger retail, dining, and entertainment section, Knott's strayed from its long-established Western theme. Popular attractions like the Wheeler Dealer Bumper Cars, Knott's Bear-y Tales, and the world's first modern, 360-degree inverting roller coaster, the Corkscrew, drove attendance to new highs. (Photo from the collections of Christopher Merritt and J. Eric Lynxwiler)

Lynxwiler hopes that the park stays true to its Southern California roots going forward.

"My family's been going there for five generations," Lynxwiler said. "It's just a part of family life to me. You go to Knott's."

He's already getting hyped for the Knott's Boysenberry Festival this spring.

Check out more classic Knott's photos below:

Posing in the Knott's Berry Farm "Pitchur Gallery" studio.
A family poses at the entrance to Ghost Town. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Posing in the Knott's Berry Farm "Pitchur Gallery" studio. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Panning for gold at Knott's Berry Farm, circa 1950. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Vintage stagecoaches running through Knott's Berry Farm in November 1959. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Posing in the Knott's Berry Farm "Pitchur Gallery" studio. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
An authentic train from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad pulls into Ghost Town depot. Engine 41 had been built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1881 and operated for decades out of Durango, Colorado, until it was purchased by Walter Knott in 1951. (From the collection of Charles Phoenix, courtesy of Eric Lynxwiler)
Visitors at Knott's Berry Farm's Boot Hill.

The Calico Mine Ride, September 1965. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Bud Hurlbut's Calico Mine Ride received a major upgrade for its fifty-fourth anniversary in 2014. (Sean Teegarden Photography, courtesy Eric Lyxwiler)

This story has been updated.