California native and self-defined “histo-tainer” Charles Phoenix has built an empire on nostalgia, delighting audiences with amateur slides, snapshots and other bits of amusing ephemera from the past. After hosting local and holiday-themed slide shows (not to mention grownup field trips like a Disneyland-style tour of downtown L.A.), Phoenix has turned his attention to Knott's Berry Farm, “America's first permanent theme park.”
Yesterday, inside the Bird Cage Theater at the park's historic Ghost Town, Phoenix co-presented a visual walk down memory lane with co-author of Knott's Preserved, J. Eric Lynxwiler. After quickly selling out his first show, Phoenix added a second to the one-day-only primer on the story behind Knott's Berry Farm, focusing on the park's founders (and SoCal royalty), Walter and Cordelia Knott.
The Knotts first started selling berry preserves in 1920, operating from a small roadside stand adjacent to Buena Park. In 1932, Mr. Knott was introduced to a cross-breed of the blackberry, red raspberry and loganberry while on a visit to Rudolph Boysen's farm in Anaheim. After buying Boysen's last six remaining plants of the as-yet-unnamed fruit, Walter Knott started selling the “boysenberry” from his family's fruit stand.
Then, in 1934, Cordelia Knott began dishing out fried chicken dinners to help her husband financially, seeing as how as it was during the middle of the Great Depression and the family was having trouble making ends meet. Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant began to attract hordes of people who'd wait in line patiently just to taste the yummy, well-priced fried chicken dinners. Soon, Walter looked to entertain the visitors with attractions that would get their minds off their hunger and the very long line, and Knott's Berry Place, later Knott's Berry Farm, was born.
“This is my favorite kind of story to tell,” says Phoenix, “the story of a legendary landmark that's homespun and family run.” Below are just a few of our favorite images from Phoenix's ultra-rare tour of Knott's Berry Farm, as well as the book, Knott's Preserved, by Christopher Merritt and J. Eric Lynxwiler.
Completed in 1945, the Bottle House was the first permanent structure at Knott's Berry Farm, offering souvenirs for sale and serving as the unofficial information center of Ghost Town.
In 1949, Walter Knott shipped a real-life log cabin from Arkansas to Buena Park and hired Nellie McKinney to play the dulcimer after hearing her perform on the radio. For almost a decade, “Aunt Nellie” entertained visitors with live renditions of old-timey hymns like “Rock of Ages.”
To fill the park's General Merchandise Store, Walter Knott bought vintage stock from a country store 40 miles north of Santa Barbara. The park's growing cast of real-life characters soon began to frequent the shop, which was the first major postwar addition to Knott's Berry Farm.
The Nugget Shack's Pan for Gold attraction was a working gold mine where guests had the opportunity to relive the Gold Rush, panning for pieces of precious metal that they could take home as souvenirs.
Walter Knott added a functioning railroad in 1951 after purchasing a locomotive, five coaches and a caboose from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
Ghost Town characters such as saloon girls, train robbers and Native Americans would mingle aboard the railroad cars with park visitors.
Ghost Town's Boot Hill featured authentic tombstones salvaged from neighboring cemeteries after they had been replaced by newer, more legible markers.
Walter and Cordelia Knott kept many of their original acquisitions for the park, including a Model T Ford and their first berry stand, built in 1923.
While a student at Santa Ana Junior College, future comedy legend Steve Martin joined his high-school classmate Kathy Westmoreland as part of a regular performance troupe at the Bird Cage Theater.
The Indian Village souvenir shop was built by Frank Day and his Native American wife Ethel. Since the 1950s, Knott's Berry Farm has expanded to include more attractions, including the Timber Mountain Log Ride in 1969, Camp Snoopy in 1983 and the Boomerang roller coaster in 1990.
Also see our interview with Phoenix from earlier this year: Charles Phoenix Talks Kodachrome Slides and Retro Vacations at Palm Springs Modernism Week