How One Big Fruit Helped Make Knott's Berry Farm What It Is Today

The park celebrates the annual spring Boysenberry Festival to commemorate the farming origins of the theme park. (Courtesy of Knott's Berry Farm )

Knott's Berry Farm is a California institution, and one of the oldest and most popular theme parks in the country. But it wouldn't have been what is is today without that namesake fruit — particularly the boysenberry.

The farm's humble beginnings started in the 1920s in Buena Park after the Knott family's failed attempts at homesteading in the Mojave Desert and the Central Valley. At the insistence of extended family, Walter and Cordelia Knott and their children stuffed into their Model T and headed south. They relocated and began working on berry patches in Orange County.

We spoke with Knott's Berry Farm spokesperson Miranda Dill for a history lesson on the family's impact on the surrounding communities. Walter Knott became a community leader and reliable farmer for the area. Knott and his family began gaining more attention by selling things like jam and preserves at a roadside stand along State Route 39 — now Beach Boulevard.

Due to his social clout and farming reputation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reached out to Knott to locate and speak with a mysterious horticulturist who was creating new types of berries in the area (sort of like an agricultural talent scout). According to Dill, Knott eventually found the man, Rudolph Boysen, in the nearby city of Anaheim.

Boysen was experimenting with new varieties of berries but could not breed one — his "boysenberry" — to yield more fruits.

A bushel of boysenberries, the fruit that helped create Knott's Berry Farm.

So, what exactly is a boysenberry? They're complicated. Boysenberries are very large bramble fruits (think the size of a human thumb), and are considered to be a variety of the blackberry (Rubus ursinus).

It's basically a cross between a blackberry and a loganberry or red raspberry (or sometimes both). According to The New Oxford Book of Food Plants, the berries can grow up to three times the size of a blackberry and has dark, reddish-black fruit. Boysenberries, sweet with a slight tangy flavor, eventually became a favorite in the kitchen, since they're great for canning and preserving — and go great in pies and cobblers.

So, back to the early 1900s: Boysen handed over the his plants to Knott with hopes that he would be able to develop them for commercial growth. After some effort, the Knotts started to mass-cultivate the berry and within a decade, production of boysenberries skyrocketed, Dill said.

FROM FARM TO TOURIST DESTINATION

Walter Knott and his boysenberry fields circa the 1940s. (Courtesy of Knott's Berry Farm )

Unfortunately, the family's prosperity was threatened, like most American farmers, by the Great Depression.

But, ever ingenuous, Cordelia Knott was having none of this. According to Dill, to combat the looming drop of berry sales and farming insecurity, she began hosting chicken dinners, using her wedding china. The dinner was also paired with a signature slice of boysenberry pie.

The dinner evolved into a roadside tourist attraction for Californians heading to the beach cities. The popularity of the farm and nursery, but especially the dinners, blew up.

Waits for the meal would reach up to four hours, leaving crowds restless and bored. To keep guests in-line and entertained, Walter started building "diversions" to keep people from jumping back on the road. His first being the Old West inspired Ghost Town which still stands today.

Knott continued to build and the nursery and farm eventually fell by the wayside as the theme park came into full-focus by the 1960s.

CELEBRATING THE BERRY

The theme park still pays homage to its famous fruit every spring with the Boysenberry Festival.

The celebration, which runs through April 28, features unique foods and live music inspired by the boysenberry. There are over 75 different berry-infused offerings, including:

  • Deep fried fun buns with boysenberry cream cheese
  • Boysenberry pull-pork tostadas
  • Boysenberry draft beer and wine
  • Boysenberry chili in a boysenberry sourdough bread bowl
  • Boysenberry elote (weird...but it works)
The deep fried fun buns with boysenberry cream cheese, a favorite of the annual Boysenberry Festival at Knott's Berry Farm. (Courtesy of Knott's Berry Farm)

Visitors can grab a tasting card to sample eight dishes from stands throughout the park.

And if you want something to take with you, the park even sells boysenberry brambles so you can grow your own boysenberries at home (FYI: it takes a year or two to get fruit).

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.